0

Balfour to return to Senate after trial

Don Balfour

Don Balfour

With a court case behind him, Sen. Don Balfour is looking toward the Gold Dome ahead of him.

After Thursday’s not guilty verdict on charges related to false expense accounts, Balfour’s suspension was automatically lifted, clearing him to return to the General Assembly when it reconvenes in January.

“I could put my Senate badge on right now,” Balfour said at the conclusion of the trial, where he took the stand and claimed the ordeal was caused by politics. “I’m going to go sit in my Senate seat and I’m going to do what’s right for the state of Georgia and I’m going to do right for my citizenship, and that’s all I’m there for.”

The verdict also helps clear unease that could have clouded the state Senate during its session, said Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, a long-time colleague of Balfour’s in the Gwinnett legislative delegation.

“The verdict has been reached and the people have spoken – finding Sen. Don Balfour not guilty on all counts. I am thankful to have this court case behind the Senate’s future,” Unterman said. “All along, I have felt distressed for Sen. Balfour’s family as well as our caucus family. It’s a relief to be able to finally move on.”

But it remains to be seen what the political future holds for the once lofty senator, who lost his Rules Committee chairmanship amid the scandal and was stripped of all other leadership positions last month.

While Balfour said a leadership post doesn’t matter to him, he said hopes the members of the GOP caucus will swiftly reinstate him.

The long-serving Gwinnett politician — whose 20 years in office is the longest for any Republican member of the Senate — easily won re-election in 2012, after the controversy came to light but before he was indicted. But he already faces competition in next year’s Republican primary.

He declined to comment about the upcoming election, but his opponent said the verdict does not change the fact that Balfour abused the public’s trust.

“Don Balfour has been found not guilty, but that doesn’t mean he should be re-elected,” said P.K. Martin, the former Lawrenceville councilman challenging Balfour on 2014 ballots. “The trial painted a clear picture that Don has lost touch with his responsibilities as a state senator. Don admitted to filing inaccurate mileage and expense reports to the state. He has shown a repeated lack of respect for public money from his nonchalance with expense reports. Elected officials have a responsibility to be good stewards of tax dollars and have the ability to focus on the needs of their constituents. Don has proven that he simply cannot be trusted to do so.”

“This entire situation is about doing what’s right, earning trust. Too many of our leaders are skating around the rules and using excuses to avoid responsibility and sacrificing the trust of the people,” Martin added. “In the State Senate, I will push to strengthen ethics laws for elected officials and push for harsher consequences for repeated accidental violations that misuse and abuse tax dollars and betray the public’s trust. More importantly, I will lead by example, do the right thing and make you proud.”

Debbie Dooley, the Dacula woman and tea party leader who helped instigate the investigation into Balfour’s charges, said she disagreed with the verdict but respects the jury’s decision.

“I am heartened by the fact Sen. Balfour is no longer Rules Chairman and he has drawn a strong opponent in P.K. Martin for his Senate seat,” Dooley said. “The Georgia State Senate should have taken appropriate action and removed Sen. Balfour from his leadership position as soon as it was evident Sen. Balfour was not properly fulfilling his duties as Rules Chairman by forming a committee to oversee expense reports.”

Sen. David Shafer, the Duluth Republican who is the highly ranked Senate president pro tem, said new ethics rules should safeguard the public from future problems.

“I am sure the verdict is an enormous relief to Sen. Balfour and his family,” Shafer said in a statement.

“We have adopted procedures that will prevent misuse of legislative expense accounts going forward, including regular review of expense requests by the Senate Audit Subcommittee,” he added. “We have a duty to be the best possible stewards of the state’s dollars.”