November 14, 2013

Governor suspends indicted state lawmaker

By KATE BRUMBACK, Associated Press

ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday followed a panel’s recommendation to suspend a Republican state lawmaker accused of illegally claiming state pay.

Deal told reporters he signed an order suspending state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville. The governor said it was “a sad occasion” but that he was required by law to sign the order after the review commission made its recommendation.

A grand jury indicted state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, in September on felony charges of making a false certificate, theft by taking and a count of false statement and writing. He is accused of illegally claiming legislative expense pay and double-billing the state and his private employer for some expenses.

Ken Hodges, an attorney for Balfour, said they respect the panel’s decision but disagree with the recommendation. Balfour didn’t intentionally turn in fraudulent reports and looks forward to defending himself in court, Hodges said.

“Unfortunately today, politics ruled, not the law, and not even simple fairness,” Hodges said, adding that he expects the suspension to be lifted by the time the Legislature reconvenes.

Senate Republican leaders reacted swiftly.

The Senate Committee on Assignments met Wednesday and removed Balfour as chairman of the Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, as vice-chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, and as an ex-officio member of the Banking and Financial Institutions Committee. The president of the Senate also removed him from the Senate State Fair Tax Study Committee.

The leadership of the Senate Republican Caucus held a conference call Wednesday and decided to suspend him as a member of the caucus, according to a letter sent to Balfour by caucus secretary Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega.

Two Republican state lawmakers and a retired Georgia Supreme Court chief justice held a hearing Wednesday to determine whether to suspend Balfour. Under the Georgia Constitution, Deal was required to follow the committee’s recommendation to suspend Balfour pending the outcome of his criminal case or until the expiration of his term.

Balfour has been under legal scrutiny for payments that he received for his work in the General Assembly.

He previously agreed to pay a $5,000 fine issued by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting pay for in-state work and travel on days when he was elsewhere. Lawmakers can only claim that pay if they are conducting official business inside Georgia. They can collect expenses while traveling outside the state if they are part of an approved delegation.

According to the indictment, Balfour sought legislative expense pay on May 7, 2009, for an expense that was also reimbursed by his employer, Waffle House Inc.

The grand jury accused Balfour of falsely filing paperwork to claim legislative expense pay on Aug. 8-9, 2011. Lobbyist reports show that Balfour was attending a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Texas during that period. On Aug. 9, a Georgia Municipal Association lobbyist bought Balfour’s lunch at a San Antonio restaurant. The following day, another lobbyist bought Balfour a meal there.

Prosecutors said Balfour also claimed expense pay on Nov. 30, 2011, a period when lobbyist reports suggest that Balfour was in Florida. A lobbyist bought Balfour dinner in Orlando on Nov. 29. Another lobbyist purchased him a ticket to Disney’s Epcot Center on Dec. 1.

Because of a deadline provided for in the state constitution, if Balfour is not tried by the end of December, his suspension will be lifted, Hodges said. No trial date has been set and Balfour hasn’t even been arraigned, so Hodges said he expects his client to be reinstated by the time the legislative session begins in January.

“On the first day, he’ll be there sitting in his seat, and the voters want him there,” Hodges said, pointing out that the allegations against him were public when he was overwhelmingly re-elected.

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Associated Press writers Ray Henry and Christina Cassidy contributed to this report.