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Georgia politicians protect their own

Posted: August 28, 2012 - 10:00pm

The members of the Senate Ethics Committee have finally settled ethics complaints filed against one of their fellow lawmakers, state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville.

Balfour had a habit of filing reports claiming reimbursement from taxpayers’ money for expenses he allegedly incurred as a legislator. The only problem was, on some of those days when he said he should have been reimbursed for expenses, Balfour was out of town being wined and dined by lobbyists.

The Senate Ethics Committee was finally compelled – or maybe the correct word is “embarrassed” – by this behavior to impose a $5,000 fine, which Balfour agreed to pay to settle the issue.

That’s not much of a punishment. Balfour has raised nearly $1.1 million in campaign contributions during the current election cycle. For a man with that kind of money, $5,000 is chump change.

The Ethics Committee members took pains to shield Balfour from any embarrassing public scrutiny. When they held their final meeting on the complaint, senators talked to Balfour and his attorney in a meeting room from which the public was barred. They taped newspapers over a door window and posted state troopers outside to keep out reporters.

The timing of the Ethics Committee’s actions was very telling. The committee began reviewing documents back in the early days of May. They could have easily concluded their investigation before July 31, the date of the primary election in which Balfour had opposition from two Republican candidates.

Instead, the committee delayed its final meeting until Aug. 16, more than two weeks after the election, before it finalized its decision about Balfour. By then, of course, Balfour had already won his primary election with 63 percent of the vote.

Legislators have a history of taking care of their own. That is certainly what they did with Balfour over the issue of filing inaccurate expense claims.

One member of the Senate Ethics Committee objected to all of this. Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, filed a minority report that said Balfour should be censured by the Senate for his conduct, just as a senator named Roscoe Dean was censured under similar circumstances during the 1970s.

McKoon sent a copy of his report to Attorney General Sam Olens, the state’s highest elected law enforcement official, and asked him to look into possible charges of false swearing and theft by deception in connection with the filing of expense reimbursement claims.

Balfour’s attorney disagreed with those contentions.

“For virtually any crime, and certainly a crime like that, there has to be an indication of criminal intent,” said Robert Highsmith, who once served on the State Ethics Commission. “Sen. Balfour’s filings were inadvertent mistakes.”

Sam Olens is an ambitious politician who would like to run for governor some day and doesn’t want to muddy the waters in his own political party. I’ll be very surprised if his office takes any action in response to the report filed by McKoon.

None of these developments should be a surprise to anyone who has paid any attention to how Georgia’s system of politics operates.

Earlier this year, a Senate committee was pondering a bill that would have ended the legislative practice of charging the public fees for such things as tire disposals and hazardous waste cleanups, and then using the money for entirely unrelated budget purposes.

Balfour, the man who filed bad expense claims, brushed aside the complaints that lawmakers hear about this highly questionable diversion of public funds.

“We’ve been doing this for 20 years and I keep getting re-elected,” he said.

Balfour was absolutely correct in making that observation. Legislators can do almost anything they want to do, because they know they’ll get away with it. They may have to pay an occasional fine, but it’s a small price compared to what they can rake in from lobbyists and political action committees.

They know that, in the end, their colleagues will do everything they can to help them hide their behavior. They know that the voters will elect them to another term in office anyway. After all, the voters of Clayton County just elected as sheriff a candidate who is under indictment on 37 felony counts.

It’s a great system if you’re one of those on the inside.

(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com.)

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