Balfour expense records under wraps until prosecution’s done
By JIM WALLS
Oct. 2, 2013 — All expense records for state Sen. Don Balfour will be withheld from public view until a related criminal prosecution has concluded, Legislative Counsel Wayne Allen said today.
That means I can’t show you the Rules Committee roster that Balfour allegedly falsified so he could claim reimbursement for a January 2011 meeting that never happened. (The minutes show Rules didn’t meet that year until February.) I thought I’d check whether any other senators claimed the $173 per diem for “attending” the non-existent meeting.
Allen said he didn’t think it appropriate to make Balfour’s expense records available while he faces criminal charges. The Legislature, he reminded me, is not subject to Georgia’s Open Records Act, which provides that an agency cannot withhold records even if they are the subject of an outside criminal investigation.
Neither the Legislature nor the Georgia judiciary is subject to the Act, though both generally make routine administrative records available so taxpayers can know how their money is being spent. That’s how I found the discrepancies in Balfour’s expense account that led to last week’s indictment charging him with claiming unearned per diem and mileage reimbursements for 29 days from 2007 to 2011.
The payments cited in last week’s indictment add up to about $2,700 in false claims, an amount that some commenters say does not justify an 18-count indictment. Balfour has blamed the discrepancies on clerical errors and paid back at least a portion of the money in question. (I can’t say how much now that the records are sealed.)
But what about the rest of Balfour’s expenses? He claimed more per diem than any other state senator in the five years covered by the indictment — 442 days that, with associated mileage, paid him about $90,000. Then-Sen. Mitch Seabaugh — who chaired the Reapportionment Committee, which met frequently to redraw Congressional and legislative districts — ran up the second-highest total with 393 days.
Most senators may claim per diem for up to 15 days a year — known as “committee-of-one days” — while conducting state business. Certain members may claim an unlimited number of such days but, under Senate rules, they must say what they were up to:
Each such officer shall provide with his or her claim for such allowances for each such day a brief statement of the nature of the official legislative business carried out on such day.
Legislators generally enter the name of the event into their expense voucher or scribble a note on the bottom. Balfour only did that once for his 102 committee days after the 2011 Legislature adjourned. He was paid more than $21,000 for those days.
Many of the payments cited in the indictment came when Balfour was attending out-of-state conferences where lobbyists treated him to meals or entertainment. It’s not known whether investigators examined Balfour’s other per-diem payments.
In February 2012, when I asked Balfour what all those committee days were for, he suggested he might have called a Rules Committee meeting. I told him that seemed unlikely since Rules’ only purpose is to decide which bills will be taken up by the full Senate. I suggested he try again.
That’s when he told me he was probably meeting with constituents.
Only later did I wonder why he would meet his Gwinnett County constitutents 32 miles away at the state Capitol. Lost opportunity. He hasn’t returned my calls since then.