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Fate of state Sen. Don Balfour now in jury's hands

Don Balfour

Don Balfour

ATLANTA — A Fulton County jury now holds the fate of state Sen. Don Balfour in its hands.

After proceedings that took the better part of three days, a decision is forthcoming regarding the 18-count criminal indictment that alleges Balfour, a Republican from Snellville, intentionally claimed state reimbursement and per diem money that he was not entitled to. Shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday, Judge Henry Newkirk began charging the jury — reading the official charges against Balfour and giving other instructions prior to dismissing them for deliberations.

“If I don’t get it and I am wrong and this is small and this isn’t important because it is offset by all of the good things that Mr. Balfour has done … if I am wrong go back there and find him not guilty,” Senior Assistant Attorney General David McLaughlin dared the jury during his closing argument, referencing a blown-up version of Balfour’s signature below the oath of truthfulness on an example reimbursement form.

“But this exists for a reason.”

McLaughlin scoffed at prior testimony by former Gov. Roy Barnes, who suggested Tuesday that keeping expenses down to the penny was “small” in the realm of a busy politician.

Defense attorney Ken Hodges, however, maintained his stance that the errors pointed out during trial were mere mistakes.

“You need to send a message back to the attorney general as quickly as you can: quit wasting our money, quit wasting our time, quit wasting our tax dollars,” Hodges said. “You should be angry about it.”

Balfour took the stand himself Wednesday morning, setting the stage for a little legal trickery by his defense team and a further tearing down of the state’s case against him.

The final witness in a string of 17 on the defense’s behalf, Balfour followed former Gov. Sonny Perdue, a sitting appeals judge, a former president pro tem of the state senate and his wife, among others, on the stand Wednesday. He told stories of helping constituents and rehashed several assertions previously made by his pair of attorneys.

Then things got pointed.

Hodges began leading Balfour down each count of the indictment against him, each charge alleging that the senator took state mileage reimbursements and per diems he wasn’t entitled to. The discussion started out innocently enough before Hodges and Balfour began making their intentions evident: They believe they did the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s work better than the law enforcement agency did.

During Tuesday’s testimony, now-former GBI agent Wesley Horne agreed with calculations presented by defense attorney William Hill. Those assertions were made in an attempt to belittle the amount of money that led to the indictment.

Balfour’s testimony Wednesday served to belittle it even further.

Purportedly using the same info available to the GBI, Balfour and Hodges presented their even smaller version of what the state was overcharged — and in two occasions, what they believe Georgia should have actually paid Balfour.

“I was underpaid 15 dollars and 10 cents,” Balfour said of one day, “but it’s on an indictment.”

Balfour said he wasn’t aware of a trip to Washington, D.C., that had been reimbursed by both the state and Waffle House until he was indicted. The senator said he had since repaid Waffle House.

As his 90-minute testimony with Hodges came to a close, a picture of Balfour’s son — about to be deployed to Afghanistan for the second time — with former President George W. Bush was displayed for the jury. Balfour grew emotional before, at Hodges’ questioning, denying intentionally filing for reimbursements he didn’t deserve.

“Do you think this (case) is politically motivated?” Hodges asked.

“Yes it is,” Balfour said.

The state’s cross-examination was relatively uneventful. McLaughlin drilled home the fact that Balfour occasionally had other people fill out his reimbursement forms, and attempted to make Balfour admit directly that the filings in question were false.

When questioned, Balfour also said he wasn’t sure what his current Waffle House salary was.

The jury was released to begin deliberations at about 4:45 p.m. Wednesday.

Key in their decision will be the fact that none of the 17 witnesses presented by the defense — nor any of the three for the state — testified that they believe Balfour filed incorrect forms intentionally. Horne, the aforementioned GBI agent, also said he did not interview a single person who expressed such a belief.

McLaughlin, however, argued that the senator could have been more attentive and applied for correct reimbursements “if he wanted to.”

“But to him it was small,” the prosecutor said, adding that he didn’t have to explain why Balfour, a wealthy corporate executive, would have taken the small amounts he’s alleged to have filed for improperly.

Pointing to, among other things, a governement retirement plan his client declined to opt into two decades ago, Hodges reiterated his disbelief that the indictment was even brought.

“Your common sense and reason should demand an acquittal for this case,” Hodges said. “Because there is no reason a man who has left nearly half a million dollars on the table would steal a few thousands dollars from the state of Georgia.”