Balfour case raises a bigger question of ethics

A common objection to certain ethics reforms, particularly a cap on gifts legislators receive from lobbyists, is that voters can judge for themselves if representatives cross the line.

House Speaker David Ralston used to argue thus against a gift cap. He reversed course and endorsed a total ban on gifts after voters in July’s primaries overwhelmingly rejected the no-limits status quo.

I think Ralston had it half-right before (the transparency of gift reports helps the public know who’s lobbying whom) and has it half-right now (transparency alone is insufficient, and a limit is necessary). I prefer a gift cap to a gift ban.

Once there’s a limit, it should be up to the voters to decide if a frequent gift recipient should serve in the Legislature. But serving in the leadership? That’s for legislators to decide — and to demonstrate their own ethical standards.

If you followed the news last week, you probably know where I’m going with this.

Last Tuesday, the AJC reported a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe of state Sen. Don Balfour. The Snellville Republican is one gift-laden lawmaker: In May, the AJC reported he received tickets to more than 120 events, valued at more than $22,000, over the past six years. But the gifts are only indirectly related to the case.

The GBI said it is investigating Balfour for filing false expense reports, seeking tax-funded reimbursement of mileage between his home and the Capitol on days he was out of the state. Balfour has already agreed to repay some $1,100 in mileage claims, as well as a $5,000 fine levied by the Senate Ethics Committee.

Here’s where the gift angle comes in: Balfour was known to have been out of town because lobbyists reported paying for his meals and lodging while he was gone. Transparency was crucial in this case.

Now, Balfour is not just any senator. He’s the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. That committee decides which pieces of legislation may go before the whole Senate. That role makes the committee very powerful, and its chairman one of the most powerful people under the Gold Dome.

The ethical question in Balfour’s case is not limited to false reporting. One of his other duties as Rules chair is to form a subcommittee to audit senators’ expense reports, including his own. He never did so.

The value Balfour places on being Rules chairman was evident in a fundraising email last month, as reported by PeachPundit.com (a campaign consultant did not return a phone call to confirm it). Balfour mentioned the role, then asked donors to consider giving at an “investment level” ranging from $250 to $2,500. The dollar figures aren’t as noteworthy as the word “investment,” which of course implies a possible return. I’m just brainstorming here, but maybe that return is knowing legislation you support has a better chance of making it to the Senate floor, while legislation you oppose stands to be stalled.

Gwinnett voters can decide in November whether to send the, ahem, gifted Balfour back to the Senate. But Senate leaders must decide whether to foist him, his “investors” and their priorities on the rest of the state by keeping him as Rules chairman.

They could decide congressional Republicans are right to limit how long one of their members can chair a particular committee. (Balfour has chaired Rules since 2003.) They could be more direct and decide Balfour is unfit to continue as chair. Or they could leave him in place.

Their decision will tell more about them than about Balfour.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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129 comments Add your comment

Stevie Ray...Clowns to my Left and Jokers to my Right here I am....

September 17th, 2012
10:29 am

KYLE

I don’t disagree but are campaign funds allowable from corporations or lobbyists? Are they limited by this law?

Logical Dude

September 17th, 2012
10:36 am

“as well as a $5,000 fine levied by the Senate Ethics Committee.”

Wait, There’s a Senate Ethics Committee?

They BOTH suck

September 17th, 2012
10:38 am

Kyle

Good article. Keep up the good work on this issue

Kyle Wingfield

September 17th, 2012
10:38 am

Stevie Ray: Not sure what you mean by “this law.”

Tiberius - pulling the tail of the left AND right when needed

September 17th, 2012
10:42 am

I have long since given up on the voters or the GOP leadership under the Dome to correct their own errors.

Witness – Murphy, Jack – State Sen. from my own county.

BRW

September 17th, 2012
11:02 am

Why would any “honest” politician (oxymoron?) require or need “gifts”?
Ban them completely. Then ANY gift would be a violation. Case closed.

Tiberius - pulling the tail of the left AND right when needed

September 17th, 2012
11:13 am

BRW, I used to be an elected official. Every Christmas season, the developers and their representatives used to drop off gift baskets or gift cards for hams or meals to each commissioner. Harmless little thank you’s to each of us for our work. Some expected favors for those gifts. Others were just expressing their thanks for doing our jobs honestly and consistently. But I don’t think there was anyone who would be swayed by a fruit basket to change their vote or push for changes in local ordinances because of them.

Me? I just gave mine to the office staff.

Point being, a total ban would be fine, but largely ineffective. The people who think they can influence elected officials will simply find a way to get money to them through campaign donations directly or through PACs.

Pompano

September 17th, 2012
11:14 am

Nice article Kyle. Balfour also presented a rather sleazy bill on behalf of his well-connected Developer buddies near the end of the session that was fortunately defeated. Gwinnett leadership has gone off the rails and has been for-sale to the highest bidder for quite some time.

Georgia, The "New Mississippi"

September 17th, 2012
11:15 am

Georgia voters do not have a lot of intellectual horsepower.. This is what they want.

Stevie Ray...Clowns to my Left and Jokers to my Right here I am....

September 17th, 2012
11:18 am

KYLE,

Will rephrase…is there a limit on campaign contributions by PACs, corporations or lobbyists currently?

Cutty

September 17th, 2012
11:19 am

If GA state employees cannot accept lunch, cab fare, or any other so-called gift from anyone doing business with the state, then the same rule should apply to legislators. No gifts at all, period.

Kyle Wingfield

September 17th, 2012
11:23 am

BRW @ 11:02: A cup of coffee counts as a gift, as does a meal at Bone’s, complete with $300 bottle of wine. I think the latter example is objectively too much, but I don’t begrudge them the cup of coffee during the short and busy legislative session — and I would rather that get reported, so that the public knows who’s lobbying whom, rather than the gift and the transparency go away. Your mileage may vary.

BRW

September 17th, 2012
11:23 am

pulling tail, I think some of that was my point.
No gifts. And I don’t agree they are always harmless. For the crooked, they turn out to be little post-it notes of who to remember when your voting for legislation. Just the tiniest little tug.
Donate if you want to a campaign but reform the campaign finance laws as well..

Kyle Wingfield

September 17th, 2012
11:24 am

Stevie Ray: I’d have to look up the limits. If I have a free moment, I’ll do so.

retiredds

September 17th, 2012
11:26 am

Kyle, there is another side to the story that doesn’t get a lot of press. Guys like Balfour are cutting the state budget, which they need to because of the GA Constitutional requirement that it balance its budget. But many good and productive state employees have been let go over the last few years. Most current state employees haven’t received a raise of any sort for at least the last four years and are paying more for their benefits.

It seems to me that if the legislators, especially Balfour and other leaders, can brag that they are lowering the cost of government they should at least be honest about their own expenses. It does not appear that many of these guys would willingly sacrifice their perks (benefits) to serve as examples for the many hard working state employees who have a mandated cap of $25 (direct or indirect) from any group or constituent.

I have a suggestion: that all these lobbyist and corporate gifts (monetized value) to our representatives go directly into the general fund similar to many of the so called fees that don’t go to the use or organization stated but into the general fund, i.e. the tire fee (tax), the specialty license plates, etc. (By the way, I submit that any fee that does not go to the intended use is a disguised tax.)

And one other thing, since GA has been in the throes of the economic decline, why on earth is any legislator going to out of state resorts on the tab of a lobbyist organization. Why don’t the legislators require that if a lobbyist wants to “smooze” a legislator, or group of legislators, that it be done in Georgia so the state at least benefits from the money being spent in GA and not Florida or somewhere else? I would love to see you ask our legislators that question and then write an article on your findings. I direct this request to you because GA is ruled by the R’s.

Jefferson

September 17th, 2012
11:34 am

The guy is a lying crook, too bad he is not a “D”, then they could make a example of them.

Kyle Wingfield

September 17th, 2012
11:35 am

retiredds @ 11:26: I’m afraid your general fund idea wouldn’t be very lucrative. No lobbyist is going to donate $300 to the state rather than take a legislator to dinner. Under your scenario, he just won’t spend the money. And while the total sum is large relative to the number of legislators, it wouldn’t be a rounding error in the amount of money being cut from the state budget.

As for your other suggestion: I haven’t looked at this specifically, but based on the examinations I have made of the data, I’d guess the vast, vast majority of this money already is being spent inside the state of Georgia. Concert tickets and meals in Atlanta, golf outings along the coast, etc.

md

September 17th, 2012
11:36 am

I say no gifts period and that would level the playing field for all. If they don’t want to do the job for the pay provided, they can choose to do something else. As for the under the table gifts if all are banned, so be it, give one enough rope and sooner or later they will hang themselves with it…………

MANGLER

September 17th, 2012
11:38 am

In business, we often take clients, or potential clients, out for lunches, dinners, shows, golfing, etc. Why? To keep their business coming our way, that’s why. There is really no other reason for someone to gift a Senator, Congressman, Judge, Commissioner, etc., than to get something thrown back their way, or to thank them for throwing something their way. So I agree with BRW and many others – no gifts period. The job of the legislature is to legislate, not get rich.

md

September 17th, 2012
11:39 am

And the animosity toward developers is a dual edged sword……….those developers provide “developments”, which also happen to become tax paying entities……..you know, that money that everyone wants someone else to pay……………..

Tiberius - pulling the tail of the left AND right when needed

September 17th, 2012
11:43 am

I think if the voters actually paid attention to who is running for office, rather than the “D” or “R” next to their name, this issue would all go away.

If you don’t like the candidate running in your district, step up and run yourself.

Just Saying..

September 17th, 2012
11:44 am

“Every Christmas season, the developers and their representatives used to drop off gift baskets or gift cards”

Christmas is the high water mark, but it’s year-round.
And if you tell them you don’t want/need them, they send them to you anyway; want to see what you actually do with the gifts.
Sending a thank you note documenting the gift’s transmittal to the homeless shelter slows them down some; but it takes a lot more than that to stop them.
And comical, when you leave the position, how you become completely nonexistent to them…

Keep it up the good work from your forum, Kyle. It’s essential if we’re ever to make headway on this critical issue.

JamVet

September 17th, 2012
11:50 am

Government for sale! Government for sale!

True in K-Street run Washington and true in Atlanta.

No gifts at all. None, nada, zero, zilch.

Mr. mooching congressman, buy your own cup of coffee and your own $300 meal at Bones…

Rush

September 17th, 2012
11:51 am

I think there should be a cap (minimal amount of around $200 annually) on gifts. I would also have to agree with the former dentist (retiredds) in regards to why in the world are public officials (it is not just state officials but many local officials) traveling out of state for training, seminars, etc. They will tell you it is to understand the parameters of the job but it is nothing more than a self-prescribed free trip on taxpayers dime. I would hazard to guess that the “seminar” to Hawaii that the APS funded could probably be handled in ATL just as easily….but who wouldn’t rather go to HI vs. ATL…
Good Article, Kyle. Keep shining the sunlight on these types of deals and hopefully a little disinfectant will occur.

Rush

September 17th, 2012
11:55 am

Lucid comment by JamVet that I can agree with in principle….what are we coming to? In all honesty, I think most everyone would agree that the free perks and sense of entitlement (from both sides of the political spectrum) need to end. The interest of those being governed need to come before those creating the laws at all levels of government (local, state, and national).

Rush

September 17th, 2012
11:58 am

Excellent point by Tiberius…..get over the (R) or (D) and vote based upon the position of the individual running. There are good candidates to be had in both parties who actually want to do what is best for the citizens rather than simply lining their pockets or staying in control. That being said…..why in the world would voters in Clayton county vote for Victor Hill for Sheriff?

Finn McCool (The System isn't Broken; It's Fixed)

September 17th, 2012
12:00 pm

those developers provide “developments”, which also happen to become tax paying entities……..you know, that money that everyone wants someone else to pay…

And of course they always build those developments in the best possible places – where the transportation infrastructure exists or can be built out before hand, the education system can handle the influx of new families, etc, etc. It’s never about the money.

Just Saying..

September 17th, 2012
12:09 pm

“Excellent point by Tiberius…..get over the (R) or (D) and vote based upon the position of the individual running. There are good candidates to be had in both parties who actually want to do what is best for the citizens rather than simply lining their pockets or staying in control.”

Agree 1000% percent.

md

September 17th, 2012
12:11 pm

“And of course they always build those developments in the best possible places – where the transportation infrastructure exists or can be built out before hand, the education system can handle the influx of new families, etc, etc. It’s never about the money.”

Of course it is all about the money, but that money is what makes the world go around………

The option is to limit development and raise taxes on all the existing entities……..that should go over real well when most folks want the 1% to pay for everything…………

Old Timer

September 17th, 2012
12:14 pm

Too bad we don’t have Statesmen rather than politicans. Great article Kyle.

Hillbilly D

September 17th, 2012
12:19 pm

These guys get a per diem when they are in session, so why do they need anybody to pay for their meals? It’s my understanding that other state employees aren’t allowed to take gifts, so let them be treated the same as the clerks and secretaries working in state offices.

The whole situation reminds me of something my uncle told me when I was a boy, “Son, don’t ever let anybody give you anything because the price will always be too high”. Most of these people doing the giving, especially at the higher levels, expect something in return for their investment and often times they get it.

those developers provide “developments”, which also happen to become tax paying entities…….

That’s true but when has development ever resulted in anything but higher property taxes? Somebody has to pay for all those roads, schools, planning commissions and other assorted infrastructure that comes with the development. All my life I’ve heard politicians preach that development lowers property taxes. Not once in my lifetime can I remember it doing anything but raising property taxes.

Development brings more jobs they say but mainly it brings more people. The unemployment rate was lower 40 years ago than it is now, in Georgia, so what has all that wide open development brought us? Traffic problems, water problems, etc. Mainly it benefits the developers.

Centrist

September 17th, 2012
12:19 pm

A limit in gifting is open to abuse – multiple gifts can obviously be made (under cover of different issues/ different gifters if need be).

Legislators are paid to buy their own coffee, and are reimbursed for travel and meals. They also make plenty more via insider deals that are rarely ferreted out. There is simply no good reason for them to accept additional gifts from anyone. Of course, we know that money flows like water – when dammed up one place, it flows somewhere else. Family members will probably start receiving generous gifts.

Hillbilly D

September 17th, 2012
12:21 pm

“Excellent point by Tiberius…..get over the (R) or (D) and vote based upon the position of the individual running. There are good candidates to be had in both parties who actually want to do what is best for the citizens rather than simply lining their pockets or staying in control.”

That’s basically what George Washington was saying in his Farewell Address. Of course, his protege. Alexander Hamilton, was instrumental in starting the first political party. George, like most politicians, could talk out of both sides of his mouth at the same time.

I still think it’s a good idea, though.

Who You Calling a Lobbyist

September 17th, 2012
12:36 pm

The inherit reality with any rule or system is that smart folks will figure out numerous ways to get around it. As soon as you pass a law or make a new rule there are folks who have already determined where the holes exist and how to use them. The easiest way to get around the proposed cap is have a straw man pick up the check for dinner, or a non-lobbyist friend of the legislator delivers the tickets. Nothing illegal about any of that. There are many other ways. Transparency is the key and that is where the “we want limits” folks have simply stuck their heads in the sand.

Let the hogs feed at the trough. Their constituents, who obviously applaud the suggested caps, are too blind, ignorant or self-interested to get rid of their public “servants”. The reap the government they deserve. As pigs get fed and hogs get slaughtered, eventually whether the constituents see it or not, the hog’s day in the sunshine will end. It will end because the greed and arrogance of the hog, which leads him to his own slaughter, and nothing the voters did.

Kyle Wingfield

September 17th, 2012
12:59 pm

Who You Calling: I’d like to think most legislators will follow the laws they pass for themselves. And in the camera-phone/Flip video/YouTube/Twitter age, I would like to think enough of those “work-arounds” will be caught and exposed to make the rest of them think twice before skirting the law.

md

September 17th, 2012
1:00 pm

“That’s true but when has development ever resulted in anything but higher property taxes? Somebody has to pay for all those roads, schools, planning commissions and other assorted infrastructure that comes with the development.”

I’ve had a few millage rate reductions in my days…….but, what also happens when a county gets more tax paying entities is the “wants” increase………typical gov’t, the more money they get the more they want to spend.

As I said, it’s a dual edged sword…….don’t increase the tax base and the only option is to raise taxes.

Finn McCool (The System isn't Broken; It's Fixed)

September 17th, 2012
1:01 pm

Should be a two year stint maximum. Fewer folks would be willing to risk their integrity if they know in 2 years that possible “under the table” revenue stream will be drying up.

Finn McCool (The System isn't Broken; It's Fixed)

September 17th, 2012
1:02 pm

Flip video? You kids and your new stuff….

They BOTH suck

September 17th, 2012
1:08 pm

Bro

Melba toast is very dry, so on the opposite end of a soap sandwich.

With that said, he better get some attraction because either one is going to get him the same result.

MarkV

September 17th, 2012
1:21 pm

No gifts, a complete ban. There is no way to define what is “harmful” and what is “harmless.” Once both the lobbyists and the politicians knew that no gift were allowed, they would stop the little “thankyous,” the politicians would stop expecting them, and that would be the end of it. As for the argument that the lobbyist would find another way – if those little gifts are so harmless, then they must find another way, mustn’t they?

Also, the idea of transparency, that people would make a judgment about who is lobbying whom – baloney. Talk about “informed public” as much as you want, people have other concerns.

Who You Calling a Lobbyist

September 17th, 2012
1:24 pm

Kyle W: I agree. Most legislators will follow the law. It’s not illegal for me as a private citizen, who is not acting as a lobbyist, to buy my state rep or senator a fabulous dinner at Bones and hand him or her 5 tickets to the next 5 UGA home games and season tickets to the upcoming ASO concert series. If it’s a perfectly legal and accepted mode of operation for me the non-lobbyist citizen to pay for dinner, what is a YouTube video going to do? “I was out with my constituents, my friends, my brother-in-law, etc., who weren’t lobbyists. Go away Mr. Investigative Reporter and quit wasting your time” What is a YouTube video going to do when the fine folks in Gwinnett County had all the WSB and AJC coverage they could handle, but refused to dethrone Mr. Balfour? The sad part is we have to wait until our elected servants get so greedy the FBI or GBI have to step in. But that’s the cost of universal suffrage.

Who You Calling a Lobbyist

September 17th, 2012
1:39 pm

MarkV. You cannot effectively legislate a complete ban. It may be constitutional to forbid all lobbyist from exercising free speech in the manner of gift giving. But even if you accomplish this, you will not stop gifts and influence peddling. It is going to happen. And the only way the citizenry will know is through transparency.

Shaniqua

September 17th, 2012
1:39 pm

The best, first line, of defense against shady operators like Don Balfour is the voters in his/her district. If they’re paying attention, and if there’s a viable opponent, they hopefully will remove the skunk from the system.

That said we are talking about Snellville here. The changes taking place in that part of the county don’t bode well for the “paying attention” department.

sheepdawg

September 17th, 2012
1:49 pm

@MarkV..you are dead on about the georgia electorate being an “informed public”. As a whole, our voters are not even educated, much less informed. Just look at the elected officials for proof – former sports bookies, crooks chased out of DC for unethical dealings, professional liars, federally indicted criminals, and common theives….just to name a few. We’ve been at the bottom of education for decades so this lack of informed public is not shocking. But we do have a good ball team in athens when we can keep them all out of jail and off suspension for drugs.

MarkV

September 17th, 2012
1:56 pm

Who You Calling a Lobbyist @1:39 pm

“MarkV. You cannot effectively legislate a complete ban.”

You can. You just pass a law. If giving gifts to politicians is “free speech,” then you cannot put any cap, can you? As for whether it would stop influence peddling – of course not, but that is not the point. It is to stop this form of influence peddling.

As I wrote before, transparency in this particular case is just baloney. Just imagine the citizens pouring over lists of “gifts” for each elected official they vote for to make judgments from that list whether a particular gift was harmful or harmless, whether it was influence peddling or not. It is just plain ridiculous.

Centrist

September 17th, 2012
1:57 pm

All this talk about transparency is next to worthless. Balfour only got caught on his false expense report because he was out of town. Crooks will just be more careful, and offer only as much transparency as they think they can afford

Road Scholar

September 17th, 2012
2:06 pm

Tib: Used to either place foodstuff gifts in the conference room for all to share or took them to a homeless shelter or church.

NO GIFTS! NO PROBLEMS! Violators fined heavily. Money to the ethics committee budget or general fund!

Oh and I always vote for the best candidate, regardless of party, color, creed, college team affiliation, color/religion of their underwear….oh that’s from another blog!

southpaw

September 17th, 2012
2:29 pm

http://www.ajc.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/activist-files-ethics-complaint-against-balfour/nQTtR/

Since someone with the Tea Party filed the ethics charges against Balfour, the charges can’t possibly be valid. Everybody knows that if the Tea Party takes one position, the opposite position MUST be right.

Be sure your irony detector is on as you read this.

I Report (-: You Whine )-: mmm, mmmm, mmmmm! Just sayin...

September 17th, 2012
2:32 pm

TV Networks Will Be Asked to Boost ObamaCare In Plots of Top Shows…

Tools.

They’ve already done homosexuality, bestiality, lack of bathing, obozo, anti America and now they roll out another lib perversion.

ew

td

September 17th, 2012
3:00 pm

If Balfour is guilty of a crime then by all means throw him in jail. If the voters of his district do not think what he has done rises to the point of removing him from office then that is on them. I would have voted against him.