Senate leader reimburses state after questions raised

Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, has returned nearly $800 to the state after it was revealed he improperly billed the Senate for mileage for two incidents in 2011 when he was actually out of town at conferences. But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis has found similar conflicts in Balfour's reimbursements dating back to 2009.

Balfour, the chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, reimbursed the state for two particular trips in August 2011. However, the AJC analysis of lobbyist disclosure reports shows the Gwinnett County lawmaker received meals, lodging and other gifts out of state on several additional days he claimed to be working in the state.

Balfour told the AJC Wednesday that the reports in question "go back a long span of time and I am re-examining all of them to make sure everything is squared away."

If, he said, "even a possible question can be raised, I will act proactively to address it, as I have already done."

Balfour said he would reimburse the state again if he confirmed that he claimed mileage on days he shouldn’t have.

Balfour earlier told The Associated Press that he reimbursed the state for the $800 in per diem and mileage in an abundance of caution. He said he had not had time to review the records. Per diem is a daily amount that legislators get when they're doing business when the Legislature is not in session.

“The idea was to take care of it and then later on we can look and see whether it was done right or wrong,” Balfour said.

The August discrepancies were first reported by the website Atlanta Unfiltered.

Those allegations led a Gwinnett County college student to file a complaint with the state ethics commission accusing Balfour of violating his oath of office.

Stephen Michael Christian, a junior majoring in political science at Georgia Gwinnett College, said he compared Balfour's mileage claims and found lobbyists reported buying Balfour meals on the same dates in August in New Orleans and San Antonio.

“How was he getting mileage money for traveling to Snellville when he was in those two cities?” Christian asked. "It’s very disturbing. It really brings into question his character as a senator.”

Of the two days mentioned, one was a conference in New Orleans for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Republican organization that develops conservative legislation, and the other a National Conference of State Legislatures meeting in San Antonio.

Balfour told the AJC Wednesday that his travel in each case "involved issues being discussed at the Capitol, from jobs to health care, so it falls within our job as a legislator."

Balfour is reimbursed $32.64 in mileage each time he goes from Snellville to Atlanta and back to Snellville.

The AJC analysis shows that in addition to the August incidents, Balfour:

  • Claimed mileage for June 6-10, 2011. However, lobbyists disclosed treating Balfour to meals and hotel rooms during much of that time.On the night of June 5, Tony Simon, a lobbyist with ConnectSouth, paid $58.51 for Balfour's lodging for a Georgia Retail Association conference at the King and Prince on St. Simons Island. To qualify for the reimbursement, Balfour would have had to stay the night of June 5, drive home to Snellville on June 6 and then go back and forth between Snellville and Atlanta to earn the reimbursement.But, on June 6, Stephen Loftin, a lobbyist for the Cable Television Association of Georgia, reported paying for Balfour's hotel room ($524.16) for the summer conference of the CTAG. Balfour attended an awards dinner that night.Also, on June 9, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce paid $524.16 for Balfour to attend its spring meeting, which also was held at the King and Prince on St. Simons.
  • Claimed mileage from Snellville to Atlanta and back for July 13, 2011, the same time a lobbyist disclosed Balfour was in Florida.Kathy Kuzava, lobbyist for the Georgia Food Industry Association, reported that she paid $409.40 for Balfour to travel to the association's annual conference, which was held at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin, Fla., on the same day.
  • Claimed mileage for Oct. 12, 2011, the same day that Monty Veazey, a lobbyist for the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals, said he paid $323 for Balfour's lodging.
  • Claimed mileage for Nov. 29, 2011. According to a disclosure filed by Henry Turner, a lobbyist for Altria, he paid $149.61 for a dinner for Balfour while attending the Republican Governors Association's annual meeting in Orlando.
  • Claimed mileage for Nov. 30, 2011. However, on Dec. 1, Callie Brooks Michael, a lobbyist for Southern Strategy Group, said she spent $66 on an Epcot Center ticket for Balfour, which means he was still in Orlando. On Dec. 2, Michael also paid for two nights' lodging for Balfour in Orlando.
  • Claimed mileage for Dec. 1 and Dec. 2, 2009. On Dec. 2, however, lobbyist Brian Hudson reported paying $53.15 for Balfour's dinner during an ALEC meeting in Washington.

Senate leaders, including Balfour, are allowed to claim per diem of $173 per day, plus expenses and mileage at 55 cents per mile, spent on legislative business when the General Assembly is not in session. Rank-and-file members are limited to 15 such days a year. Lawmakers do not have to provide receipts for their expenses, although they must sign a sworn affidavit that says the information provided is "true and correct."

In the Senate, Balfour, as Rules Committee chairman, is given a monthly report detailing how much each legislator is reimbursed by the state.

Georgia lawmakers in 2011 billed the state more than $1.3 million for travel and expenses while the General Assembly was not in session, according to data obtained by the AJC. Of that, more than $20,000 went to Balfour, who was one of the top recipients of out-of-session reimbursements.

William Perry, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said Balfour's reimbursements expose a flaw in the system.

"The number of days just doesn't seem to be a judicious use of that benefit," Perry said, "and perhaps the Senate and the House should take a serious look at allowing unlimited reimbursements on those days."

As for the apparent discrepancies in Balfour's reimbursements, Perry said they raise questions.

"He definitely needs to respond to inquiries about how he could compile those expenses when there are so many that appear to be double dipping," Perry said.