One of the state’s highest-profile criminal prosecutions was put in the hands of jurors late Wednesday, giving them the power to decide whether state Sen. Don Balfour deliberately stole money from the state.
Deliberations are set to resume Thursday. A verdict will be seen as a referendum on Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens’ pursuit of the case, which has been viewed as a kind of litmus test on lawmakers’ ethics at the state Capitol.
Prosecutors have seemed to struggle over three days of testimony to show Balfour intentionally inserted errors into expense reports and mileage claims paid to him by the state. Almost immediately, starting with the state’s first witness Monday, the defense instead grabbed the trial’s narrative and turned it into one involving a nosy government’s obsession with the mistakes of an honest, overworked man.
“Your verdict is a message to Sam Olens, it is a message to the state of Georgia: don’t waste taxpayer dollars on people who aren’t criminals,” defense attorney Ken Hodges said during closing arguments. “What an absolute waste.”
Once one of the most powerful politicians in Georgia, Balfour faces 18 felony counts related to expense reports he filed with the General Assembly over a five-year period. The former chairman of the Senate Rules Committee is accused of intentionally taking reimbursement for expenses to which he was not entitled — charges that could bring him up to 10 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.
He also would lose his seat in the Senate.
Assistant Attorney General David McLaughlin during the trial at times got bogged down in minutiae about how the state Legislature reimburses lawmakers for expenses related to their legislative work, relying heavily on pages and pages of copied receipts, mileage forms and vouchers. All three of the state’s witnesses testified that they either did not know of any intent on Balfour’s part to defraud the state or were not told he did anything on purpose.
In closing arguments, however, McLaughlin rallied to make a passionate plea for jurors to hold Balfour accountable to the standard of his office — including an oath he signed every time he turned in a form vouching for its accuracy.
“When he wanted to get reimbursed, he was obligated to be honest and truthful,” McLaughlin said. “Why did he do it? Who knows,” he said, adding that it could simply boil down to one thing: “Because he wanted to.”
The defense called 17 witnesses, ending with Balfour himself taking the stand Wednesday. In testimony, Balfour attempted to turn the tables on his accusers by claiming the state actually owes him money. He picked apart the 18-count indictment to show jurors the state’s figures overestimated how much he took.
For example, on one count the state claimed he was overpaid $17.72 in mileage. Using both the state and his own records, Balfour said the amount really was $12.87.
The amounts were less important than the overall impression Balfour’s defense team has tried to create: Balfour is being prosecuted for making inadvertent errors to reimbursement claims when the state’s own math may be faulty.
Moreover, Balfour said there are 115 days over five years he was working for the state when he did not claim a legislative per diem (a daily amount lawmakers get for working on legislative business when the Legislature is not in session). That’s more than $23,000 Balfour said he didn’t claim.
“I should’ve gotten paid per diems for those days but for the fact that I didn’t turn them in,” he said. “It wasn’t important. I wasn’t there for the money.”
Over the last two days, a parade of former lawmakers and other political types have testified Balfour may be unorganized, but he is not dishonest. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who said Wednesday he left the bedside of his dying sister to testify, called Balfour a “cantankerous curmudgeon” but also a man of his word.
Former Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson and former state Sen. William Ray, now a judge with the Georgia Court of Appeals, also testified Wednesday prior to Balfour taking the stand.
The prosecution, led by McLaughlin, struggled this week to show Balfour intentionally double-billed mileage and claimed compensation for days he was not doing state work.
Witnesses for the prosecution showed Balfour filed 16 vouchers that claimed expenses to which he was not entitled. Balfour has admitted he made mistakes, but he has maintained they were accidental.