Valdosta Daily Times

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September 28, 2013

Balfour indicted on expense-related charges

ATLANTA — A grand jury has charged state Sen. Don Balfour with illegally claiming legislative expense pay and double-billing the state and his private employer for the same expenses, according to an indictment released Friday.

The indictment accuses Balfour of falsifying multiple reports to claim pay and travel expenses from the General Assembly. On several of the days when Balfour claimed state pay, lobbyists reported entertaining the lawmaker outside of Georgia.

Balfour, R-Snellville, previously agreed to pay a $5,000 fine issued by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting pay for in-state work and travel on days when he was elsewhere. Lawmakers may only claim their legislative expense pay if they are conducting official business inside the state. They can claim expenses while traveling outside Georgia if they are part of an official delegation approved in advance.

The Fulton County grand jury handed down its indictment Tuesday.

Balfour admitted last year that he made “mistakes.” He did not return messages seeking comment Friday. His attorney, Patrick McDonough, said that Balfour did nothing criminal.

“Our preliminary investigation into this is he may have made some inadvertent mistakes on his expense accounts, but he certainly did not intentionally misappropriate any state funds,” McDonough said.

Balfour’s case was particularly troubling since he previously served as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which was supposed to set up a panel to scrutinize the expenses filed by Senate lawmakers. Georgia’s lawmakers face little scrutiny and few standards when claiming upward of $1 million annually in expense pay under a system that relies heavily on their honesty.

Senate leaders appointed a new committee chairman earlier this year.

“Our hearts go out to the members of Senator Balfour’s family,” Senate President Pro Tempore David Shafer said in a written statement. “The Senate takes seriously its responsibility to safeguard the tax dollars of this state.”

Balfour faces 16 counts of making a false certificate, one count of theft by taking and one count of false statement and writing, all felony charges. The false certificate charge is punishable by one to five years in prison and a fine of up to $1,000. Theft by taking carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. False statement and writing is punished by one to five years in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.

All of the charges are felonies.

The grand jury alleged that Balfour was double-billing to get money, in one instance seeking legislative expense pay on May 7, 2009, for an expense that was also reimbursed by his employer, Waffle House Inc.

The Republican lawmaker came under scrutiny last year when it was revealed that Balfour was claiming legislative expense pay on days when lobbyists reported entertaining him outside Georgia.

For example, the grand jury accused Balfour of falsely filing paperwork to claim legislative expense pay on Aug. 8-9, 2011. Lobbyist reports indicate that Balfour was attending a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Texas during that period. On Aug. 9, Georgia Municipal Association lobbyist Tom Gehl reported that he bought Balfour’s lunch at a San Antonio restaurant. The next day, another lobbyist reported buying Balfour a meal at the event.

In a similar instance, Balfour was accused of illegally claiming expense pay on Nov. 30, 2011. Lobbying records suggest that Balfour was then in Florida. A lobbyist bought Balfour dinner in Orlando on Nov. 29, while another lobbyist purchased Balfour a ticket to Disney’s Epcot Center on Dec. 1.

The Senate Ethics Committee, which examined Balfour’s expenses, identified 18 days where the lawmaker improperly filed for pay or expenses. In addition to the fine, Balfour reimbursed the state nearly $1,200.

Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, declined through his spokesman to comment on the charges. Deal will have two weeks once he formally receives a copy of the indictment to assemble a panel tasked with deciding whether Balfour can finish his term in office.

When the indicted official is a state legislator, the panel is supposed to include the attorney general and one member of each chamber of the General Assembly. But since the attorney general is the one who sought the indictment against Balfour, the state constitution says he cannot serve on the panel and the governor will instead have to appoint a retired state Supreme Court justice or a retired state Court of Appeals judge.

Olens issued a statement enumerating the charges but otherwise declined to comment.

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