State Sen. Don Balfour will face two of the state’s top Republicans and a retired state Supreme Court justice as they determine whether he remains in office while under indictment.
Gov. Nathan Deal named Senate Majority Leader Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, and retired Chief Justice George Carley to serve on a panel reviewing Balfour’s case. It’s the second time in less than a year that a Georgia legislator has faced his peers as they decided whether the charges against him make him unfit for office.
Balfour, the Senate’s longest-serving Republican and once one of its most powerful members, is charged with 18 counts of filing false expense claims and theft.
Attorney General Sam Olens, whose office is prosecuting the case, released the indictment last month. It is based on allegations that Balfour charged the state for expenses on days he did not have those expenses.
“Sen. Balfour has devoted 21-years-plus to the citizens of Georgia with devoted public service,” his attorney, Ken Hodges, said in a statement. “He absolutely did not knowingly falsify any vouchers and has already corrected the minor discrepancies. When the commission (Chance, O’Neal and Carley) and the public look at the facts of the case objectively they will see that he did not commit a crime.”
Balfour, who is free on a $5,000 bond, has over the past year also repeatedly said he inadvertently made mistakes on expense reports.
The state constitution calls for the three-member panel, which has until Nov. 15 to issue a written report to Deal. Its decision is final.
The panel’s primary job is to approach the case objectively and not pre-determine the outcome, said Steve Anthony, who teaches politics at Georgia State University after years spent as one of the state’s top Democratic legislative aides.
“The process should not be affected” by Balfour’s history in the state Senate, Anthony said. Balfour was a former Gwinnett County GOP chairman when he ran for the Senate seat and beat a longtime state lawmaker in 1992. He rose to one of the chamber’s most powerful positions as chairman of the Rules Committee, which decides what bills reach the Senate floor for a vote.
Chance said the panel would do its work “in a timely manner,” adding that “given the situation, I believe our actions must be diligent and deliberate in making our recommendation” by the Nov. 15 deadline.
The same consideration held true last spring, after state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, was charged in May with 30 counts of mail, tax and wire fraud by a federal grand jury. He has pleaded not guilty and is also free on bond.
The three-member panel reviewing Brooks’ case — Olens, Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta — decided unanimously not to suspend Brooks, who is accused of using money raised for a pair of charities he operates for his own personal expenses.
Before its one and only meeting in June, Henson said the group’s mission was to “take politics out of the equation and do what you think is the right thing and deal with that at a later date. If you do that, you come out a lot better than looking at politics.”
Brooks and his attorney, former Gov. Roy Barnes, have said the veteran lawmaker had poor accounting practices but broke no laws. He wasn’t paid for the work he does for the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials or Universal Humanities but was reimbursed for expenses.
In Balfour’s case, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in April 2012 that as far back as 2009, he had submitted expense records for mileage and, in some cases, per diem for in-state work on the same days that lobbyists reported buying him meals out of state.
Balfour also reimbursed the state $800 in April 2012 after the website Atlanta Unfiltered reported he had previously billed the Senate for mileage on two occasions when he was out of town at conferences.
The new indictment, however, includes allegations that date to 2007. Olens, who is charged with prosecuting cases involving state resources, brought the charges after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation ended an inquiry in December.
Legislators’ per diem is a daily amount they get for working on legislative business when the Legislature is not in session. Senate leaders — who for a long time included Balfour — are allowed to claim per diem of $173 per day, plus expenses and mileage at 55 cents per mile. Rank-and-file members are limited to 15 such days a year. Lawmakers do not have to provide receipts for their expenses, although they must sign a sworn affidavit that the information provided is “true and correct.”
Balfour has already faced punishment from his peers. The Senate stripped him of his longtime position as Rules chairman. The Senate Ethics Committee also publicly rebuked Balfour last year, fined him $5,000 and ordered him to repay the state about $350.
If suspended, Balfour would continue to collect his $17,000 legislative salary but could not act in an official capacity. His seat would also remain vacant until the next election.
The suspension would be lifted if Balfour is not convicted.
The story so far
2012 — Reports from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other news organizations detail problems with legislative expenses filed by Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville. The AJC discovered on multiple occasions from 2009 to 2012 that Balfour was paid for state travel when lobbyists were also reporting that they paid for his meals and hotel rooms elsewhere.
September — Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens announces that Balfour has been indicted on 18 counts of filing false expense claims and theft. The indictment, however, includes allegations that date to 2007. Balfour, who is free on a $5,000 bond, has said repeatedly that he inadvertently made mistakes on his expense reports.
Wednesday — Gov. Nathan Deal appoints a three-member panel, Senate Majority leader Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, and retired Chief Justice George Carley, to determine whether the charges against Balfour make him unfit for office.
Nov. 15 — The deadline for the panel to render its decision on Balfour fitness for office. The decision will be final. If the panel rules against Balfour, he will be suspended with pay, and his seat will remain vacant until the next election.