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With trial for Sen. Don Balfour looming, defense tries to quash

Sen. Don Balfour

Sen. Don Balfour

ATLANTA — With a criminal trial scheduled to begin in 10 days, the defense for embattled Georgia Sen. Don Balfour argued Friday morning that the indictment against him should be thrown out.

Balfour, a Republican from Snellville, was indicted in September, a Fulton County grand jury charging him with 16 counts of making false certificate and single counts of theft by taking and false statements. The indictment alleges that, between 2007 and 2011, the senator filed inaccurate per diem and mileage reimbursement forms totalling about $2,700.

The senator and his defense team have maintained that the erroneous filings were merely unfortunate mistakes, but a trial was scheduled for Dec. 16.

Depending on the ruling of Judge Henry Newkirk, that may or may not happen.

Defense attorney William Hill argued a motion to quash the state’s case Friday morning, focusing on the fact that the state Senate has the power to punish its own and contending that it should be permitted to do so. The Attorney General’s Office, he said, has “absolutely run roughshod” over the concept of separation of powers.

“This indictment is unconstitutional,” Hill said, “and it invites a violation of all of these well-established constitutional principles.”

Greg Lohmeier, representing the Attorney General’s Office, conceded that an article in the state constitution does grant the Senate the ability to reprimand and punish members for misconduct — but argued that that doesn’t mean it has sole power to do so.

“It doesn’t say that they have the exclusive power to do that,” Lohmeier said. “It doesn’t say that the attorney general or the district attorney is prohibited from punishing someone for committing a crime.”

He evoked the image of another politician assaulting or raping someone and the subsequent punishment being doled out by the Senate.

“(The defense) is saying that all members of the General Assembly are immune from indictment and prosecution, because that is the logical conclusion of his argument,” Lohmeier said. “… What (the defense) is really saying is General Assembly members are above the law, and that they should be treated differently.”

A ruling was not issued Friday morning, but Newkirk said it would be coming “soon.” Hill speculated that a decision could be made by early next week.

Balfour, who was reelected last year despite an ongoing Senate ethics investigation, turned himself in at the Fulton County jail on Oct. 1 and was incarcerated for about two hours. Gov. Nathan Deal suspended him from the General Assembly last month and he was stripped of several leadership positions.

The aforementioned ethics investigation resulted in Balfour paying a $5,000 fine as well as a few smaller reimbursements. The report identified 18 days where Balfour filed for per diem or other expenses when he was out of state or otherwise disposed.

Hill reasserted Friday that his client’s errors were unintentional and the result of filing expense reports “two or three months” after the fact. He said Balfour felt “singled out.”

“He admits he could have been more diligent,” Hill said.