The Senate Ethics Committee voted Thursday to fine Sen. Don Balfour $5,000 for filing inaccurate travel reports to claim expenses, and the Snellville Republican also will repay about $350 to the state.
But the punishment, and how it was reached, did not sit well with ethics reform advocates, including one who sits on the committee.
The committee concluded that "Sen. Balfour failed to maintain accurate records of his travel and consequently submitted inaccurate vouchers to the Legislative Fiscal Office," according to its report, which was released late Thursday afternoon.
Veteran lawmakers said it was the first time the Senate Ethics Committee voted to punish one of the chamber's members.
Balfour, chairman of the Rules Committee, was accused of billing the state for mileage while out of town on lobbyist-funded trips, and for failing to create a subcommittee to audit all senators' reimbursement vouchers.
On Thursday, Balfour acknowledged making "some inadvertent mistakes and I've said that all along" and admitted he had not created an audit subcommittee — but neither had previous chairmen. He did not speak to reporters after the report was released.
Balfour appeared before the committee with his attorney, Robert Highsmith, but the public was barred from the room and aides taped copies of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the door's windows and three state troopers were posted outside. The committee then met alone, without Balfour, for about four hours before making its decision.
State law requires the Rules Committee to have an audit subcommittee to "to examine and review, not less than once every two months, legislative expenditures, including all vouchers submitted by members of the Senate, as provided for in this Code section, for which the members have received payment."
The committee also ordered Balfour to create the subcommittee.
Balfour has acknowledged mistakes in filing reimbursement claims and in March returned nearly $800 to the state based on a couple of instances. A further analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, however, found eight additional instances where Balfour claimed reimbursement on days lobbyists reported buying him meals or lodging in other cities.
Balfour also amended those reports. Per diem is a daily amount of money legislators can get when they are doing business when the Legislature is not in session.
Penalties in state law for willfully falsifying legislative expense reports include a fine up to $1,000 and as much as five years in jail. State authorities, however, have not said whether they have any interest in pursuing the case.
Committee member George Hooks, D-Americus, the longest-serving senator, said the agreement with Balfour ends the committee's role, but said other "jurisdictions" could have an interest in the case. Hooks stressed, however, that he has no knowledge that any law enforcement agency plans to investigate.
They should, said Debbie Dooley, a tea party activist and member of the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform who filed the complaint with the committee.
Dooley called the penalties "a slap on the wrist" agreed to in a "backroom deal."
"The attitude of the voters and the grass roots is that the Senate chamber is a good old boy network that actually takes care of their own and covers for their own," she said.
The committee, Dooley said, is "rubber-stamping unethical behavior from Sen. Balfour."
Dooley vowed to press Attorney General Sam Olens and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard to investigate Balfour's actions.
She said her organization also will pressure Senate leaders to strip Balfour of his committee chairmanship. The Rules Committee decides which bills make it to the Senate floor, and as chairman, Balfour has great power to influence those decisions.
But Highsmith said the penalties are "certainly not just a slap on the wrist," and said the decision concludes "the matter all together."
Maybe not. Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, was the lone "no" vote to the settlement agreement. In a statement later, McKoon said he disagrees with the penalty, "which will not deter future serious breaches of Georgia law and is not as strong as penalties imposed when similar offenses have been committed in the past."
McKoon said he will prepare his own recommendations, and said the committee's action "further undermines public confidence in state government and reinforces the 'anything goes' culture at the Capitol."
In 1998, Sen. Ralph David Abernathy III was convicted on 35 felony counts on charges related to the submission of false reimbursement requests to the Legislature. Abernathy, a Democrat, was prosecuted by Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker. Abernathy served about a year of a four-year prison sentence.
With Balfour's case, Common Cause Georgia executive director William Perry was more disappointed with the way the penalties were decided.
"This was done in the dark, and apparently the senator and his attorney testified before the committee, which to me sounds like a hearing," Perry said. "And a hearing should be done in public."
In his re-election race, Balfour defeated two Republican opponents in the July 31 primary and faces Democrat Scott Drake, a Lawrenceville attorney, in November.