Despite the rants of publicity-seeking bigots, the blather of Twitter twits and a national news media more interested in scooping the competition than in accurate reporting, the fact is that our American system of justice presumes one is innocent until proven guilty.
I say this to emphasize that Sen. Don Balfour (R-Snellville), once the chairman of the powerful Rules Committee in the state Senate, has every right to a presumption of innocence in the charges handed down last week by the Fulton County grand jury, which cited 18 counts of false expense claims and theft.
The charges came as a result of an investigation by the Atlanta newspaper and a report from the hard-nosed Internet website Atlanta Unfiltered, regarding some questionable expense account records for mileage and for claiming in-state legislative work when lobbyists reported having bought him meals out of state. As a result, Balfour now faces prosecution by Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens — not a pleasant prospect.
Things were already looking a bit dim for the Snellville senator before the recent grand jury action. Last year, he was removed as chairman of the Rules Committee, one of the most influential jobs in the State Senate, after some of the expense account questions came to light. In addition to being knocked off his catbird seat, he received a public rebuke from his peers on the Senate Ethics Committee and fined $5,000, a rare action indeed.
More bad news for Balfour: Contributions to his reelection campaign have all but dried up and blown away. As of July, he has raised $2,000 for his reelection campaign. That doesn’t even qualify as pocket change in the high-finance world of campaign contributions. It seems that lizard-loafered lobbyists know damaged goods when they see it. Still, Balfour has more than $600,000 in his campaign coffers left over from the good ol’ days when he was The Donald. He may need it.
While straining to adhere to the “innocent until proven guilty” concept, I must confess that Balfour earned my enmity when he was still riding his high horse. The Legislature has a shameful record of going back on its word regarding special fees which are collected and meant to be spent for such things as environmental cleanup, drivers’ education and other dedicated purposes. Instead, legislators plop the money in the general fund to be spent as they choose, not as they promised.
A lot of people who had worked for years to get this special legislation passed expressed dismay at seeing their efforts subverted. But that didn’t bother Balfour, who announced, “We have been doing this for 20 years, and I still keep getting reelected.” Even for arrogant politicians, that was over the top and indicative of copping an attitude when you think you are politically-bullet proof. By the way, he made that statement only last year. Like confessing to having kissed a goat, he probably wishes now that he had kept his mouth shut.
There are a lot of good people in the political arena who are there for all the right reasons. The publicity Balfour is getting these days isn’t helpful. The accusations against the senator feed a perception that legislators play by a different set of rules than the rest of us. If they aren’t careful, that perception can quickly become reality in our minds. A big help in combating that notion would be to retire the old canard that wining-and-dining doesn’t buy influence. Of course it does. Why else would lizard-loafered lobbyists spend their time and tithes on politicians? We the Unwashed know better. That dog just ain’t gonna to hunt anymore. Write it down.
I am already getting mail from readers requesting the steps I had mentioned previously in this space that are required to check on campaign contributions and entertainment expenditures to legislators via the Georgia Government Transparency and (exhale) Campaign Finance Commission, nee the State Ethics Commission.
Splitting the atom is easier than finding out what special interest group is lavishing how many dollars on which legislators, but I will show you how to get that information as we get closer to the 2014 session — unless you can’t wait. Your wish is my command.
In the meantime, whether Sen. Don Balfour is innocent of the charges being leveled against him or not is for others to determine but there is no question that he has made political life more difficult for his colleagues in the General Assembly. They didn’t need this.
Email columnist Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org.