ATLANTA — Two pictures of Don Balfour were painted for a Fulton County jury Monday afternoon.
The 20-year state senator from Snellville, according to the prosecution, is a Waffle House executive who keeps meticulous records of his professional life — calendars so detailed they occasionally include items like “shower” and “shave.” Impeccable expense reports of the same type that, when filed in his role as a member of the Georgia General Assembly, formed the basis for an indictment.
Ask Balfour’s defense attorneys, and he’s a big-hearted, big picture kind of man, a former accountant who hated accounting and isn’t very good at keeping track of things like expenses and per diems. Public service? Yes, please. Attention to detail? Not so much.
Following another day or two of testimony, a jury will have to decide which is the real — or realest — Don Balfour.
Proceedings began Monday in the trial against Balfour, who is facing 18 criminal charges alleging that he knowingly filed for and received reimbursement that he wasn’t entitled to between 2007 and 2011. The defense has conceded that the erroneous reports, totalling about $2,700, were filed. They maintain there were simple mistakes made.
After spending most of the day selecting a jury, each side presented opening arguments Monday afternoon. Senior Assistant Attorney General David McLaughlin began with a blown up version of the bottom of a state expense report, a foot-tall “Don Balfour” scribbled below an oath promising truthfulness.
“This is not a case about just money. This is a case about this certification,” McLaughlin said. “This is a case of loyalty and honor and respect of a system.
Defense attorney Ken Hodges, on the other hand, spoke of Balfour as an honest man who met his wife at a New Jersey bible camp and for two decades has voluntarily reduced his corporate salary by the amount he’s paid as part of the General Assembly. The few thousand taxpayer dollars lost in erroneous filings have, Hodges said, been surmounted by Balfour’s having opted out of the state retirement program.
Over the same five-year period of the indictment, the defense argued, Balfour could have filed for at least 100 per diems that he didn’t claim.
“It has cost him $300,000 to be a state senator,” Hodges said, referencing the aforementioned salary cuts. “And the state is going to tell you they think he has stolen a couple thousand dollars over the last five years.”
Balfour, a Republican representing District 9, 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 senator turned himself in on Oct. 1 and spent about two hours in the Fulton County jail.
Since then, he has been suspended from the General Assembly and stripped of several leadership positions. Balfour was once chairman of the rules committee.
The trial is expected to be completed by Wednesday. Attorneys on both sides have agreed on Balfour’s reimbursement packets as evidence, negating the need to hear from records supervisors and other monotonous testimony.
McLaughlin said the state’s case will consist of only three witnesses, one of which took the stand late Monday. Cindy Owens, the accounts payable supervisor at Waffle House’s Norcross corporate headquarters, testified as part of the prosecution’s attempt to paint Balfour as a solid records keeper.
Under cross-examination, Owens called the detail and accuracy of Balfour’s Waffle House reimbursements “average.”
“This is nowhere near the best you’ve seen, is it?” asked William Hill, a member of the defense team.
“No,” she said.
Hodges, the other defense attorney, said he intends to call a number of character witnesses during the trial. Balfour is expected to testify on his own behalf.
“He can’t wait to tell you” his side of the story, Hodges told the jury.