Georgia ethics panel re-looks at case against former Senate leader

The state ethics commission voted 4-0 Thursday to reopen what appeared to be a dead case against former state Sen. Don Balfour involving about $630,000 in leftover campaign money. Photo by Brant Sanderlin. Don Balfour at the State Capitol Monday. Photo by Brant Sanderlin.

Credit: Brian O'Shea (AJC)

Credit: Brian O'Shea (AJC)

Wonders where $630,000 in campaign money went

The state ethics case against former longtime Georgia Senate leader Don Balfour isn’t over yet.

The ethics commission on Thursday voted 4-0 to reopen what appeared to be a dead case against Balfour a week after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported it was being dismissed by the panel’s staff, despite the fact that the ex-Gwinnett County lawmaker hadn’t reported what happened to about $630,000 in leftover campaign money.

“The reason this doesn’t feel right is because it’s not right,” said Jake Evans, chairman of the commission, who made the motion to reject the staff’s dismissal. “I cannot agree with the administrative dismissal in this case.”

David Emadi, executive secretary of the commission, signed an order last month administratively dismissing the case because he said a loophole in campaign finance laws made it too late to investigate Balfour — who left office in 2015 — for not filing campaign disclosure reports. Those reports would have shown what happened to the leftover money, much of it collected from Statehouse lobbyists, associations and businesses with an interest in legislation.

Under state law, legislative candidates can raise and spend money to win or maintain their office. Once they leave office, leftover money can be returned to donors, given to other campaigns or to nonprofits.

Former lawmakers must file campaign disclosure reports annually until all the money in their accounts is dispersed and they file termination reports.

Balfour’s lawyer, Doug Chalmers, said the lawmaker’s campaign account was closed several years ago. Also, state law limits how long campaign bank records must be maintained. It also sets a statute of limitations for the panel to make ethics cases.

“It is in my view too late to be posing these questions," Chalmers said.

Emadi said any leftover campaign money was moved out of Balfour’s campaign account several years ago but the commission doesn’t know where it went.

Lawmakers, candidates and ex-legislators are frequently fined for not filing reports on time disclosing what they raised and spent. The commission’s website, for instance, says Balfour owes $2,750 in late fees. He last filed a mandatory report in January 2016 showing his campaign bank account held $630,416.98.

Chalmers argued that the commission should know when someone doesn’t file a report, something commission staff says isn’t always flagged because of the old computer system it uses.

The lack of disclosures may have never come to light without a 2018 complaint that was filed with the commission accusing Balfour of bankrolling a smear campaign against a former colleague, state Sen. David Shafer, who was running in the Republican runoff for lieutenant governor against Geoff Duncan. Shafer lost the runoff to Duncan.

Balfour strongly denied the accusation and threatened legal action against William Perry, founder of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, who filed the complaint.

At the time, the former lawmaker hadn’t filed reports showing whether there was any money left in his campaign account in 2018, and Chalmers and Emadi said it is now legally too late to go after him for not making the reports.

“I am not happy about this,” Emadi said. “I don’t know where we go from here.”

But several members of the commission noted that Balfour never filed an official notice terminating his campaign account and that his bank account was empty, and they said he is still in violation of laws governing campaign disclosures.

“I want some answers,” said Robert Watts, a member of the commission. “This does not seem right to me.”

Perry said if the commission ultimately can’t do anything, the case should be investigated by the state attorney general’s office, the state Department of Revenue, the Internal Revenue Service or the U.S. attorney’s office.

“I think it is absolutely ludicrous that this man can just walk away with over $630,000 in campaign contributions and not have to tell anyone how he spent the money,” Perry said.

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