A Fulton County jury acquitted State Senator Don Balfour Thursday on charges he filed fraudulent expense reports.
The state was unsuccessful in its attempts to argue Balfour knowingly took legislative pay when he wasn’t on official state business. His defense successfully argued the errors were innocent mistakes.
It took the jury about three hours to decide the Snellville Republican was innocent of all charges. He was accused of trying to bilk the state by falsifying travel vouchers. His defense argued Balfour wasn’t trying to steal because he often didn’t collect all of the reimbursements owed to him.
Gov. Nathan Deal, also a Republican, suspended Balfour from the Senate last month. In an interview after the verdict, Balfour said the GOP caucus should re-instate him immediately.
“My suspension was over the moment this was finalized. My suspension is over. And I can put my Senate badge on right now,” said Balfour.
The state argued the case was about right and wrong, regardless of how much Balfour might have been overpaid.
In his closing argument, senior assistant attorney general David McLaughlin mused about Balfour’s intentions.
“Maybe Mr. Balfour did this because he knew, ‘I’m entitled to so much that I don’t claim that this is not a big deal. I don’t need to be accurate’.”
He added that those intentions still wouldn’t be right. But after the verdict, Balfour reiterated it was just sloppy paperwork on his part.
In a statement, attorney general Sam Olens said he was disappointed by the verdict:
“ The GBI investigation revealed that Senator Balfour requested and received reimbursements for expenses he did not actually incur: miles he did not drive, days he did not work, hotels other people paid for,” he said. “ Those requests were too numerous and systematic to be simply isolated mistakes. If those requests had been submitted by an unelected state employee, they would have been prosecuted, and a state senator should not be held to a lower standard. I was convinced that this case should be brought. A grand jury agreed.”
While the trial for legislature’s longest-serving Republican is finished in the Fulton County Superior Court, one watchdog group says the issues raised during by the case aren’t over.
The key issue: top Georgia lawmakers’ freedom to claim legislative pay without having to explain what they were doing to earn it.
William Perry is with Common Cause Georgia. He says the rules governing day to day legislators need to change.
“For someone to be able to say, ‘I deserve $173,’ and not to have to explain what they did on any given day is beyond me. I understand it’s different for committee chairs versus day-to-day legislators but that needs significant reform,” said Perry.
In 2011, for example, Balfour claimed 126 days of per diem outside of the 40-day legislative session. At $173 each day, that equaled $21,000 in additional pay.
Balfour previously agreed to pay a $5,000 fine levied by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting pay for in-state work and travel on days when he was elsewhere.
Contributors: This report also contains material from the Associated Press.