Where did $630K in campaign money go? Georgia ethics panel won’t find out

Statute of limitations prevents state commission from learning what former Senate leader did with the money when he left office
Former state Sen. Don Balfour did not disclose what he did with $630,000 in campaign cash after leaving office in 2015. Photo by Brant Sanderlin.

Credit: Brian O'Shea (AJC)

Credit: Brian O'Shea (AJC)

Former state Sen. Don Balfour did not disclose what he did with $630,000 in campaign cash after leaving office in 2015. Photo by Brant Sanderlin.

Three years after reopening an investigation into what former longtime Georgia Senate leader Don Balfour did with $630,000 in leftover campaign money, the state ethics commission on Monday officially threw in the towel.

Ethics commission staffers said they couldn’t find a way around a one-year statute of limitations that was on the books at the time the case was filed against Balfour, who did not disclose what he did with the money after leaving office in 2015.

“No one is happy with this result, I want that to be crystal clear,” said David Emadi, executive secretary of the commission. “But we are not going to move beyond what the law allows us to do.”

The Balfour case helped change state law — with the General Assembly approving a bill to give the commission three years after a campaign finance violation occurs to bring a case against a politician.

The commission voted in 2020 to reopen what appeared to be a dead case against the powerful former Gwinnett County lawmaker a week after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported it was being dismissed by the panel’s staff.

Emadi had signed an order administratively dismissing the case because a loophole in campaign finance laws made it too late to investigate Balfour 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, legislators and legislative candidates can raise and spend money to win or maintain their office. Once they leave office, leftover money can be returned to donors or be given to either other campaigns or 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 in 2020 that the lawmaker’s campaign account was closed several years earlier. 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.

Lawmakers, candidates and ex-legislators are frequently fined for not filing reports on time disclosing what they raised and spent.

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, then-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.

Several members of the commission said in 2020 that Balfour never filed an official notice terminating his campaign account and that his bank account was empty, and they said he was still in violation of laws governing campaign disclosures.

Perry said at the time that 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. It’s unclear whether that ever happened.

So on Monday, Emadi included Balfour’s case on a list of cases he was again dismissing, and this time the commission didn’t object.

“It is disappointing the old law allowed someone not to be held accountable, especially when it’s this large of amount of money,” said Rick Thompson, vice chairman of the commission.

Balfour declined to comment Monday.