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Wednesday, November 13, 2013 - 8:19am

State Senator Suspended While Facing Criminal Ethics Charges

A panel of Republican lawmakers moved quickly on Wednesday to recommend suspending Sen. Don Balfour.

Balfour, a Snellville Republican, is facing charges that he accepted daily pay and travel reimbursements when reports filed by lobbyists show he was outside of Georgia. Lawmakers can only seek that pay for work done in the state.

In September, a grand jury charged Balfour with 16 counts of making a false certificate, one count of theft, and one count of making a false statement.

Wednesday’s panel met to determine if the criminal charges would interfere with Balfour’s duties as Senator. Gov. Nathan Deal agreed with the panel’s recommendation and suspended him.

When he appeared before the panel, Balfour made no comment. Afterwards, said he welcomes due process.

“We have a Constitution that says we are innocent until proven guilty and I hope that just like there’s First Amendment Freedom of the Press there’s a right for me to be considered innocent until proven guilty,” said Balfour.

It’s been more than a year since Balfour first appeared before the Senate Ethics Committee. That panel handed him a civil fine of $5,000.

But fellow GOP Senator, Josh McKoon of Columbus, sought a more formal punishment and submitted recommendations to Attorney General Sam Olens.

In a 2012 interview with GPB, McKoon said he had no choice.

“I think once the Ethics committee was presented with allegations of criminal conduct that it was incumbent upon us to refer those matters to an appropriate authority that has the ability to investigate those.”

Olens asked Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into the allegations that Balfour illegally accepted pay for work outside of the state.

One of those GBI agents was Wesley Horne.

When Balfour’s attorneys asked Horne if he found conduct that suggested the Senator couldn’t fulfill his duties, Horne replied said “the best answer I can give to that is, we found evidence he submitted false documents.”

But Balfour’s attorney, Ken Hodges, said the errors in the expense reports were simple mistakes, and that the voters have stood behind him.

“They’ve had a Senator and voice for the last year and a half while all of this has been going on. They’ve had an effective advocate in Don Balfour. He has done his job. He continues to do his job.”

But now that Balfour has been indicted, Charles Bullock with the University of Georgia said voters might feel differently.

“To be indicted doesn’t mean you’re guilty of anything. There’s the old joke among lawyers that you can indict a ham sandwich. But I think it does probably register with many voters a certain seriousness to the charges that in the past they might not have given much credence to.”

The state’s most powerful Republican, Gov. Deal, said Balfour’s suspension was an unfortunate turn of events.

“Anytime this occurs to an elected official, that in and of itself is a sad day,” said Deal.

It’s a long way from the heights of the Senate rules committee chairman. Balfour’s Senate post allowed him to decide what legislation came to the floor. If Balfour wanted to squelch a bill, he could do that by simply never calling it up at a Rules committee meeting.

Balfour’s suspension expires at the end of the year. He’ll be back to serving in the Senate when lawmakers reconvene in January 2014.

As for Balfour’s criminal indictment, he faces arraignment in Fulton County Superior Court, most likely by the end of the year.