Spotlight on Don Balfour’s $29K condo, 123 committee days
By JIM WALLS
Feb. 6, 2012 — State Sen. Don Balfour in 2011 spent more than $29,000 given to him by campaign donors to rent a downtown Atlanta condo that he could use year-round.
For eight-plus months of the year, though, records indicate he drove home to Snellville — rather than stay in the condo — on each of the 103 days that he worked on public business.
Under state law, elected officials may spend political donations on “ordinary and necessary” expenses of holding office, which include the cost of lodging while conducting official business. Many state legislators use campaign funds to rent apartments for the three or four months that they’re in Atlanta each year.
But is it “ordinary and necessary” for a lawmaker to spend $29,000 to rent a condo that he doesn’t use for public business for most of the year?
Balfour thinks it is.
“It’s not easy to get a place for four months, especially a nice place,” Balfour said in a telephone interview. “I’ve stayed at terrible places. I’m not going to do that again.”
Balfour’s campaign account paid $2,100 a month last year to lease a unit at the 29-story Spire Condominiums on Peachtree Street. With utilities, parking and other costs, the campaign spent $29,346 on the condo.
The 10-term senator said he spent the night there much of the time from January through April. The rest of the year, he said, he lives in Snellville.
Senate rules allow Balfour and nine other key members to take an unlimited number of “committee days” (earning $173 per diem reimbursement for each one) for doing public business. He took 20 such committee days during the 2011 legislative session in 2011, plus 103 more the rest of the year — much more than any other Georgia lawmaker. (That doesn’t count the 50 days for which every legislator earned per diem last year.)
Balfour collected $21,279 in per diem for his committee days, plus $4,191 for his mileage, almost exclusively between Snellville and Atlanta. Records like these at the Legislative Fiscal Office show he requested reimbursement for that 64-mile round trip for each of his committee days — indicating he spent those nights in Snellville rather than the condo.
Balfour accumulated 86 of those out-of-session committee days by charging the expenses to the Senate Committee that he chairs — Rules — which does nothing when the Legislature’s not in session.
The Rules Committee sets the daily calendar for the Senate and decides which bills are ready for consideration by the full chamber. It meets daily, often early mornings and late evenings, before each of the last 35 days of the session.
Asked why he charged so many days to Rules, Balfour said at first, “I may decide to have a Rules Committee meeting when we’re not in session.”
Calendars and meeting minutes show Rules never met outside of the regular and special legislative sessions in 2011. Asked a second time what those committee days were for, Balfour clarified.
“It could be the Rules Committee, it could be meetings where I’m meeting with constituents, I could be looking at the budget, but it’s days that I control,” he said.
Under Senate policy, the 10 members allowed an unlimited number of committee days must submit with each reimbursement claim “a brief statement of the nature of the legislative duties carried out” for each day.
None of Balfour’s 2011 per diem requests showed what sort of business he was in Atlanta for.
Why does he take so many committee days?
“I’ve been around 20 years,” he said. “Constituents want to talk to me.”
Balfour appeared to be out of town on several days for which he received a mileage reimbursement for driving from Snellville to Atlanta.
On Aug. 5, for instance, Balfour was reimbursed for Rules Committee business and commuting from home. Georgia Power disclosed spending $50 on Balfour for a tour of New Orleans that day while he was attending a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council.
On Aug. 9, the Georgia Municipal Association said, it bought Balfour an insalata mist and lasagna in San Antonio. The next day, the Georgia Chemistry Council bought him lunch there. For both days, Balfour collected per diem and commuting mileage. [UPDATE: Balfour was indicted in September 2013 for claiming expense reimbursements for these and other dates.]
Balfour did not respond to an email asking followup questions regarding the lack of a written explanation for his committee days or commuting reimbursements for days he was out of town.