Don Balfour's back from the political graveyard -- and Disneyworld, too

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

A Fulton County jury has just acquitted you of 18 felony counts that might have put you behind bars for 10 years. What do you do next?

If you’re state Sen. Don Balfour, you embrace the cliché. You spend the next four days in Disneyworld with your wife and son, his fiancée, and your future in-laws. And you exhale.

Then you start work on your re-election campaign.

Two weeks after a jury rebuffed accusations that he had purposely stolen state dollars by fudging his legislative expense account, the Snellville Republican said he intends to remain in the Senate – and will ask GOP voters in a May primary to disregard those who suggest his exoneration is less than complete.

"I'm not a lawyer, but one of the foundations of our country is that you're innocent until proven guilty. And if you're found not guilty, you are innocent," Balfour said his first extended interview since a Dec. 20 acquittal. (Lawrenceville City Councilman P.K. Martin has announced his Republican candidacy for Balfour's District 9 seat.)

More immediately, Balfour hinted darkly – without naming names — of forces in the Senate whom he holds responsible for his 14-month ordeal. “When was the last time you saw a felony indictment for $11? A felony indictment for $22?” he said.

And Balfour is still pondering the content of his first speech on the Senate floor, once the Legislature returns to Atlanta next week. At times, he thinks of “going to the well and saying what sometimes I really believe.

“The other side is I ought to turn the other cheek. But how many times do you turn the other cheek, when people – year after year after year – continue this stuff?” the lawmaker asked.

(Balfour specifically exempted Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, president of the Senate, from the scope of his ire. “Casey has been very welcoming and positive. I think he and I will get along just fine,” he said.)

Once one of the most powerful figures in the state Capitol, Balfour was a master at gaming the legislative system. In 2011, he claimed expenses for 126 work days at the Capitol —- more than any other lawmaker. In 2012, the AJC reported Balfour had accepted tickets to more than 120 sporting and events over the previous six years, paid for by lobbyists, worth about $22,000.

But in his trial, Balfour was accused of submitting false expense reports amounting only to a few thousand dollars. The prosecution admitted the total amount wasn’t eye-popping, and the lawmaker’s attorneys mounted an “oops” defense — admitting the missteps, but claiming they were the minimal errors of a busy man.

Two former governors, Sonny Perdue and Roy Barnes, testified on Balfour’s behalf.

Balfour declared himself surprised by the ill-prepared nature of the prosecution, but said he didn’t feel a sense of optimism blossom until the second day of the three-day trial. “I say we felt confident, but I’m the one standing before the jury. And you don’t know if they’re going to throw a bone to the prosecution and give them one,” he said.

The state lawmaker declined to detail any plea offers he received from Attorney General Sam Olens’ office – except for one. On the weekend before his trial started, prosecutors offered to drop a single count, Balfour said.

Balfour said he refused it. Here’s what the Snellville lawmaker said he told his lawyer: “On that charge, they owe me $15. The reason they want to drop it is they just found out they’re charging me with a felony, and they owe me money.”

Balfour said the personal cost for his defense runs to six figures. If that sounds vague, there may be a reason. It’s possible that he’ll soon ask the state to pick up the cost – which would add another dose of irony to a saga already creaking under the weight of such strangeness.

Balfour’s wife Ginny, a surgical nurse, sat behind him throughout the trial, knitting. “She had no idea what this was all about. This isn’t the world she lives in,” her husband said. “If your baby needed heart massage, my wife could do it anytime — no big deal. She didn’t know how to handle this.”

But Balfour said he was more worried about his son, Trey – that he would personally take on his father’s unnamed enemies before the trial played out. “My biggest fear was when my son came back from Afghanistan last time, and he was on the Senate floor one of the last nights,” Balfour said. “I really was worried that he was going to do something. He knows who’s behind this, too.”

Trey Balfour wasn’t at the trial. He was training in Mississippi for another tour in Afghanistan. He leaves soon.

If there was a false note in Balfour’s own testimony last month, it was the fact that he couldn’t produce a ballpark figure when a prosecutor asked for his annual income as a Waffle House executive.

Something like that could bother voters in his district. You and I know how much we make, down to the penny — our margins are that slim. I asked for an explanation.

“The question was, ‘How much do you make.’ And my response was, ‘What do you want me to include in that number? Do you want my taxable income? Do you want my non-taxable income? Do you want to include my stock benefits?’” Balfour said.

The state lawmaker said he preferred not to guess. “The last time I made an $11 mistake I got charged with a felony,” he said.