ATLANTA — State Sen. Don Balfour agreed Thursday to pay a $5,000 fine for illegally accepting pay for in-state work and travel on days that he was outside of Georgia and for failing to monitor the expenses filed by fellow lawmakers.
The settlement marks the first time the Senate Ethics Committee has fined a lawmaker in at least 30 years and perhaps longer, said Sen. George Hooks, a committee member and the longest-serving senator now in the chamber. The deal means Balfour will not face a public hearing on the accusations ahead of the November general election.
"I inadvertently made some mistakes," Balfour said shortly before the deal was announced. "I've corrected those mistakes and we're talking to the committee about them."
Not only did Balfour violate the rules, he was responsible for enforcing them. As chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, Balfour was allowed to claim more out-of-session pay than rank-and-file senators. His committee was supposed to form a subcommittee to examine the vouchers filed by senators at least once every two months. Balfour said Thursday that he never fulfilled those duties.
Debbie Dooley, a coordinator for the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, filed one of the complaints against Balfour and criticized the penalty as a "slap on the wrist." She said voters deserved to hear Balfour's explanation in a public hearing. Instead, the case was resolved behind closed doors.
"The attitude of the voter and grassroots is that the Senate chamber is a good-old boy network that actually takes care of their own, covers up for their own," said Dooley, who said she plans to ask prosecutors to investigate whether Balfour committed a crime.
Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, was the lone vote against the agreement because he said it was too lax.
Balfour ran afoul of a combination of state law and internal rules governing the expense reimbursement system for Georgia lawmakers. Legislators can claim flat-rate daily pay and seek travel reimbursements for conducting official business inside Georgia when the General Assembly is not meeting as part of its annual 40-day session. They can only claim out-of-state expenses if traveling as part of a delegation approved in advance by legislative leaders.
Knowingly violating those laws can carry a maximum $1,000 fine or up to five years in prison should a prosecutor press charges. Balfour does not face any criminal charges, and his attorney, Robert Highsmith, said he was unaware of any law enforcement agency pursuing the matter.
The case started when a resident, Stephen Michael Christian, filed a complaint with the committee accusing Balfour of improperly claiming expense pay. Dooley later filed a similar complaint. While the Ethics Committee decided it lacked jurisdiction over those complaints, it decided to investigate the accusations itself.
In its report, the committee identified 18 days where Balfour improperly filed for pay or expenses. For example, Balfour claimed flat-rate payments and mileage for traveling from his home in Snellville to Atlanta on Aug. 4-5, 2011. Lobbying reports show he was elsewhere. Georgia Power lobbyist Glennis Barnes paid $50 so Balfour could go on a tour in New Orleans on Aug. 5, according to lobbying reports.
The senior Republican also claimed pay and roundtrip commuting expenses from his home to Atlanta on Aug. 8-12, 2011. But lobbyist reports show Balfour was actually attending a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Texas for several of those days.
On Aug. 9, Georgia Municipal Association lobbyist Tom Gehl bought Balfour salad and lasagna at a San Antonio restaurant, according to state records. The following day, Georgia Chemistry Council lobbyist Rudy Underwood reported buying Balfour lunch at the NCSL conference. The report does not say where they ate.
Balfour previously repaid the state about $800 in disputed expenses. As part of the agreement, Balfour must pay another $367 to reimburse the state for pay or expenses that he should not have claimed. Those reimbursements are separate from the $5,000 fine.
So far, the accusations have not hurt Balfour politically. He easily defeated two Republican challengers, Travis Bowden and Steve Ramey, in the GOP primary on July 31. He faces Democratic candidate Scott Drake of Lawrenceville in the Nov. 6 general election.