ATLANTA — Friday’s unsealing of an 18-count indictment against a state senator might have also struck Gov. Nathan Deal as bad news and not just because the two Republicans have been allied on some issues.
A Fulton County grand jury charged Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, with filing false claims on his legislative expense account. He acknowledged mistakenly claiming reimbursement for doing official business in Georgia on days when various lobbyists also claimed to have bought him meals during out-of-state conventions.
If convicted, Balfour could spend time in prison for violating the state’s ethics laws. So, what’s it to Deal? The governor is facing accusations that he also violated Georgia’s ethics laws.
In both cases, the allegations were first raised by non-official sources, the kinds of bloggers and gadflies who peruse the hundreds of candidate and officeholder filings in search of mischief. Often, the concerns they raise are technical violations that can try the patience of ethics commissioners as well as the politicians themselves.
Deal is accused of essentially using his 2010 gubernatorial campaign to funnel contributions into his personal coffers and those of his daughter-in-law and close associates by overpaying them for their services. The governor’s lawyers and Deal himself have repeatedly denied wrongdoing, noting that the ethics commission never set any rules on the subject so there is no way they could be broken.
Other defenders have dismissed the allegations by disputing the overcharges in the first place, arguing that the alleged beneficiaries really charged the going rate rather than bilking the campaign.
The ethics commission disposed of Deal’s complaint by levying a $3,350 fine. Balfour’s case had been disposed of as well. He was also stripped of his position as chairman of the Rules Committee where he wielded considerable power.
If prosecutors can resurrect a case against an individual lawmaker about paperwork he filed back in 2007, then Deal must know he hasn’t yet escaped himself.
Perhaps more troubling for Deal are new allegations that surfaced this summer in depositions from former staff of the ethics commission who say employees of the governor’s office engineered their ouster to stifle their investigation of his campaign expenses. The former head of the commission staff and an attorney who served as investigator are suing for wrongful dismissal. While disgruntled ex-employees are naturally inclined to exaggerate a former employer’s flaws, interviews with other commission employees – including those who replaced the women who are suing – suggest some interference continued even after they were replaced.
Using a government office to interfere with an investigation – even an ethics one that can only impose civil fines – may be a violation of the federal Hobbs Act. Lawyers who handle ethics cases speculate that federal investigators are watching the outcome of these lawsuits.
Deal and his spokesman deny the allegations of interference as strongly as they do the earlier claims of expense manipulation in which they agreed to a fine. That agreement, by the way, didn’t acknowledge any guilt but rather a willingness to put the matter to rest.
How much impact these accusations will have on Deal’s re-election is hard to gauge. His polling is strong, but he has attracted two primary challengers, which is unusual for an incumbent. He also has a Democratic challenger and will probably face a Libertarian in next year’s general election.
(Reach Walter Jones, the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (404) 589-8424.)