Maybe it’s different in your line of work, or at your place of employment, but I suspect that if I had been caught filing multiple expense forms for trips that I had not taken, requesting compensation I had not earned, the punishment would be pretty severe.
For one thing, it would suggest that I could not be trusted to tell the truth, which in my line of work and many others is a fairly important job requirement.
State Sen. Don Balfour, a Gwinnett County Republican and the powerful chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, filed multiple expense reports claiming to have been working for the state and traveling for the state when in fact he had not done so. We know that he had not done so because we also have lobbyist disclosure forms that contradict forms filed and signed by Balfour, documenting the fact that on multiple days in which he claimed to have been at the Capitol working, he wasn’t even in Georgia but was being wined and dined out of state.
On Thursday, after meeting in closed-door sessions with Balfour and his attorney, the Senate Ethics Committee fined the chairman $5,000 for those transgressions and demanded that he pay an additional $350 in restitution. (Balfour had earlier repaid the state $800.) As of today, Balfour retains his chairmanship, and there is no sign yet that his leadership post will be challenged. That’s not surprising in a chamber in which the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee is being sued for gross negligence and breach of fiduciary duty by the FDIC for his role as director of a failed bank, yet retains his influential role over the Georgia banking industry.
I wonder: What would have happened had Balfour’s secretary at the Capitol filed multiple false expense account reports from the state?
We do know that back in the late ’90s, then-Sen. Ralph David Abernathy was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to serve a year in jail for filing false expense and per diem accounts. If Balfour did not consciously set out to cheat the state, at the very least he filed reports with a cavalier disregard for whether he deserved the compensation.
(To be clear, I don’t think Balfour’s case rises — or stoops — to the level of the Abernathy case, because Abernathy’s behavior was more egregious. Among other things, Abernathy had tried to bribe a former assistant to lie on his behalf.)
But here’s the thing. It’s easy and unfortunately justified to question the kid-glove treatment that Balfour has received from his Senate peers. However, the facts of this case have been well documented for quite a while now. And just last month, Balfour easily defeated two challengers for his seat in the Republican primary. He faces a Democratic challenger in November, but given the nature of his district and his huge campaign chest — it is good to be Rules chair — his re-election is quite likely.
While laws are necessary, they reflect but do not establish a state’s ethical culture. Neither do fellow politicians. In the end, that has to be the function of voters. Our leaders will rise or fall to meet whatever standards of behavior that we require of them, and clearly, they continue to do so.
– Jay Bookman