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Balfour suspended from office, kicked out of caucus

Gov. Nathan Deal suspended indicted state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, on Wednesday after a three-member panel found him unfit for office.

The ink was barely dry on the panel’s recommendation that Balfour be suspended when the Senate’s Republican leaders kicked him out of the chamber’s Republican Caucus, effective immediately.

They also announced they had stripped him of every remaining leadership position he had in the chamber, including the chairmanship of the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, vice-chairmanship of the Health and Human Services Committee and an ex-officio spot with the Banking and Financial Institutions Committee.

Yet it all could make for an awkward reunion for Republican lawmakers in January when Balfour is still allowed to take his seat in the chamber for the next legislative session, despite an all-out effort to make him feel unwelcome.

The reason Balfour’s suspension likely will be so short is because of legal loophole in the state Constitution, which allows him to come back from suspension in early January if he hasn’t yet been tried (the loophole requires a trial to begin within two court terms). His reinstatement would not affect any expected legal proceedings.

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But it would likely be “uncomfortable” for both him and his peers, said Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “This is the first time we’ve been confronted by a legislator coming back before trial but after indictment.”

Balfour, the Senate’s longest-serving Republican and once one of its most powerful members, would have the standing of a wet-behind-the-ears freshman. He would be allowed to serve on committees, but nothing more, because the rules prohibit leaders from kicking him off of them completely.

“It’s just about as severe a recommendation or action the Senate could have taken under authority of existing rules,” said Chuck Clay, a former longtime senator and former chairman of the Georgia Republican Party who now works as a lobbyist. “It’s a sad scenario, and it’s compounded now by the suspicions people have about government.”

Balfour, charged with 18 counts of filing false expense claims and theft, was indicted in September after allegations that he charged the state for expenses on days he did not have those expenses. He has repeatedly said he made mistakes on his expense reports but did nothing intentional.

In 1998, Sen. Ralph David Abernathy III was convicted on 35 felony charges related to false reimbursement requests to the Legislature. Abernathy, a Democrat, was prosecuted by Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker and served about a year of a four-year prison sentence.

Balfour is currently one of two indicted lawmakers at the Legislature. The other, state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, faces federal charges of wire, tax and mail fraud related to his work with a pair of nonprofits. But Brooks is allowed to continue to serve while his case continues.

Laura Pfister, with the state Attorney General’s Office, said during Wednesday’s hearing the allegations that led to Balfour’s indictment stand on their own merits.

Balfour has already faced punishment from his peers. The Senate stripped him of his position as Rules chairman. The Senate Ethics Committee also rebuked Balfour last year, fined him $5,000 and ordered him to repay the state about $350.

While suspended, Balfour — who has served under the Gold Dome for 21 years — will still collect his $17,000 legislative salary but cannot act in an official capacity.

In his first, brief comments since the indictment was released, Balfour seemed resigned if defiant: “We have a Constitution that says we’re innocent until proven guilty,” he said.

His attorney, Ken Hodges, said Balfour looked forward to reclaiming his seat in the Senate. The people in Balfour’s district “will once again have the representation they deserve and that they overwhelmingly voted for even when the allegations were public and pending” last year, Hodges said in an email.

The panel — which included Senate Majority Leader Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, and retired Chief Justice George Carley — also heard Hodges call the proceedings an “attack” on Balfour’s integrity. One witness, a former GBI agent, said none of 10-20 people he spoke to during the investigation claimed Balfour sought reimbursement for the expenses intentionally.

“Sen. Balfour looks forward to a full hearing on the merits of the case in a court of law where his constitutionally guaranteed due process rights will be in place,” Hodges said afterward. “Unfortunately today, politics ruled, not the law and not even simple fairness.”

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