Double Standards: Democrat Senators Convicted; Republican Senator Ignored

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Former Senator Charles Walker. Former Senator Ralph David Abernathy III. Senator Don Balfour.

These men all served together in Georgia’s State Senate.  One is still there.  The other two were removed under less than honorable circumstances.  Two were Democrats. One is a Republican. They remain a study in similarity and contrast beyond their elected titles.

Walker and Abernathy became symbols of the corrupting influence of single-party rule. Republicans used Walker and Abernathy to convince swing voters that Democrats were bad, the system was broken and electing Republicans was the answer.

Both men used their positions of power for profit. Both abused the public trust and both went to jail. Walker, for cheating advertisers in his Augusta Focus newspaper, two public hospitals, his campaign contributors and a charity event he founded.

Abernathy is largely remembered for attempting to smuggle a small amount of marijuana into the U.S. in his underwear when he returned from a trip to Jamaica.  His felony prison term was the result of something far different – and much closer to home if you are the current Senate Rules Chairman.

Abernathy was found guilty of 5 counts of theft by taking, 5 counts of false statement, 5 counts of violating his oath of office, 2 counts of forgery and 1 count of influencing a witness.  According to a press release still found on the Georgia Attorney General’s office website, “These charges involved submitting false expense reimbursement requests to the Georgia General Assembly, forging documents to substantiate the expenses, and subsequently receiving reimbursement money from the state of Georgia.”

That Attorney General was Thurbert Baker, also a Democrat.  Abernathy was prosecuted by members of his own political party.

Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Ethics Committee is scheduled to convene at 1:00pm.  On their agenda is presumed to be a complaint, filed not by a member of the Senate or legislature, but by a citizen of Gwinnett County.  The complaint involves expense reports filed by Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour over a period of years.

Balfour has submitted requests for reimbursement for per diem and mileage for 126 days (just in 2011) that the Legislature was not in session.  Each of these days Balfour would be required by Senate Rules to have been working not as a Senator talking to constituents, but on the work of his committee.  Balfour chairs the Rules Committee, which decides the flow of legislation to the Senate floor.

106 of these days were claimed to be for Rules Committee work.  It stretches the bounds of reason and imagination to pretend that a committee whose sole purpose is to decide the flow of legislation requires its committee chairman to do committee work almost every other calendar day when the legislature isn’t in session, and thus has no flow of legislation to manage.

The mileage claim is significant because Balfour claims to have traveled to and from his Snellville home every one of these days, despite the fact that on some of these days he was not in the state.  Even when in town, it is hard to explain why Balfour keeps a $2,100 per month condominium in Midtown Atlanta if he drives home to Snellville every day as his expense reports indicate. Georgia code 16-10-20 makes signing the false claim for any mileage reimbursement a felony.  The same felony charge that sent Ralph David Abernathy to jail.

Jim Walls, former editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who now operates the Atlanta Unfiltered website, outlined in excruciating detail the lapses in Balfour’s expense reports and where they clearly contrast with Georgia law.  Balfour routinely omits end recipients for campaign reimbursements and/or the nature of the expense as Georgia law requires.

Though Walls reported the false mileage claims in February, they were ignored until early April when there was a public call to remove Balfour as Rules Committee Chair for his abuse of his expense reporting.  Balfour refunded $800 for the mileage and per diem for days lobbyists documented entertaining him out of state and has denied any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, the Republicans who used Ralph David Abernathy and Charles Walker as convenient whipping boys to gain power continue to pretend to see nothing wrong with the behavior or expense reimbursements of Don Balfour.  It seems that if there is no investigation, no finding of ethical violation, no indictment, and no conviction then we as Republicans can continue to claim we are better than they were.  We are not.

One of the mantras that Newt Gingrich used to move the Republicans from the back bench to a “permanent majority” was that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  D.C. Republicans, using the K Street project and Jack Abramoff, quickly proved him right.

Georgia Republicans have now achieved absolute power of their own.  What they continue to do – or not do – regarding the problems set before them by their own poster child of ethical irregularity will tell us a lot about how we are actually going to govern those who govern us.  It will also tell those of us who care about ethics in government whether or not we need to consider if these folks are still our own.


  1. Calypso says:

    I’d love to see Donnie in an orange jumpsuit.

    Can someone tell me if Balfour can be tried in the courts (if so, who would bring the charges?) or can his misdeeds be prosecuted only by the AG or some sort of legislative oversight panel?

    • Jackster says:

      I believe Charlie mentioned the precident – the AG would bring felony charges. (Baker & Abernathy)

      Speaking of which, could we get a road named for Balfour, much like Ralph David Abernathy in Atlanta?

      • ryanhawk says:

        From the press release Charlie referenced in the RDA3 indictment: AG requests GBI Investigation, Indicted by Fulton County (Grand Jury?):

        “The investigation arose as a result of an open records request. In June 1998, Senator Abernathy filed suit against the State and the Georgia State Senate to block disclosure of the requested documents. As a result of the document review undertaken to defend the suit, the Attorney General asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate possible wrongdoing by Senator Abernathy. The resulting investigation led to the indictment returned today in Fulton Superior Court.”

    • Ed says:

      Good question… seems like there would be plenty of lawyers willing to go to court with this one…

  2. sunkawakan says:

    “…the problems set before them by their own poster child of ethical irregularity …”

    Great comment, Charlie.

    I suspect that Balfour is not the only legislator in Georgia who deserves that description.

  3. Jimmie says:

    Great Job Charlie!
    It ALL starts with ethics. The minute an elected official crosses that line is the minute they are no longer of use to the Public. They have to be held accountable, removed, and punished. I just started looking into how bad it really is here in GA. Geez. Let’s start with Balf and keep them all honest. Whether it be loans to campaigns and astronomical interest earned on those loans, kicking public out of a Public Council meeting for taping it, to all the other things that are just waiting to be uncovered. I don’t care what beloved Party you belong to. You are of no use to me as an elected official if when you cross the line. We need to grow a pair and clean this septic tank out.

  4. debbie0040 says:

    The GOP controlled Senate is at a crossroads. They killed ethics reform this session and accepted an enourmous amount of gifts from lobbyists. If they sweep the Balfour complaints under the rug, they will be perpetuating the public perception that the party in control can do whatever they want to under the Gold Dome and get away with it. It will taint all GOP Senators because they elect Senate Leadership that put Sen. Balfour in power. If enough GOP Senators raised cain with leadership, this would have been stopped long ago.

    I am hoping the Senate Ethics Panel finds Sen. Balfour guilty of wrong doing and sends it to either the Attorney General or the Georgia Ethics Commission (Or whatever it is called now). It will end up in the Attorney General’s lap sooner of later anyway as I have heard activists are writing letters asking the Attorney General to investigate potential wrong doing..

    No matter which path the Senate Ethics Committee takes, it won’t be over….

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      “If they sweep the Balfour complaints under the rug, they will be perpetuating the public perception that the party in control can do whatever they want to under the Gold Dome and get away with it.”

      But the party in control can do whatever it wants under the Gold Dome and get away with it.

      The Georgia GOP doesn’t have any type of remotely serious opposition from either the Democrats or seemingly even within the party (Tea Party, etc).

      The GOP could literally get away with murder at this point as virtually all of Georgia outside of I-285 HATES Democrats with a furious passion and the Tea Party factions of the GOP, while vocal and visible, are not necessarily organized or well-funded enough to mount serious challenges to incumbents at the moment.

      Balfour is standing out as one of the most corrupt politicians in the entire state and yet he is still extremely well-funded with a deep war chest of somewhere in the neighborhood of $800,000 and is an overwhelming favorite to be re-elected to office, yet again.

      Balfour’s seeming continued “electability” isn’t all that shocking seeing as though he represents a district in Gwinnett where voter turnout in local elections often hovers around or below the 10% mark.

      • debbie0040 says:

        “Balfour is standing out as one of the most corrupt politicians in the entire state and yet he is still extremely well-funded with a deep war chest of somewhere in the neighborhood of $800,000 and is an overwhelming favorite to be re-elected to office, yet again.”

        Last Dem, you just stayed tuned …You may be surprised…

  5. NorthGAGOP says:

    How many Senators are on the committee? Who are they? Will they have the courage to stand up and do the right thing? I hope that they do, and that they aren’t fooled by Sen. Balfour’s ploy to return a fraction of the tax payers money. Sen. Balfour holds the keys to any legislation that they would like to get passed.

    The FBI was down at the airport today, maybe they can start spending some time at the capitol, or better yet set up a shell lobbying firm.

  6. NoTeabagging says:

    If the Lt. Governor derailing is possible, so is the Rules Chair. Game of Thrones fans, suit up, and tune in.

    • NorthGAGOP says:

      Since this is an election year, it is feasible to shake up the Senate Leadership. That would be fun to watch.

    • Dave Bearse says:

      Of the approximately dozen e-mails I sent to all members of various committees over the past year, totaling in excess of 100 addresses, I received no more than two responses from those I was to whom I was not a constituent. (One of the two maximum was Buzz Brockway in connection with Brookhaven legislation.)

      These are people that can’t be bothered even acknowledging receipt of e-mails from non-constituent Georgians. For the most part, if you don’t vote in their district, don’t buy them dinner, and don’t contribute to their campaign, you don’t matter. I wish you luck Debbie.

  7. Rick Day says:

    You guys are making it tough on us with plans for the good Senator and his propensity to curry favor with those who line his purse with coin.

    Lay off, I’ve got some money to spend.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      No need to worry, there will still be plenty of legislators to buy even in the extremely unlikely event that the “Senate Ethics Committee” decides to hold Balfour accountable for his ethical lapses.

    • Calypso says:

      And why do you not give a rat’s a**hole with mayonnaise? I find your lack of disgust, as you put it, pathetic.

  8. xdog says:

    GOPer senators will deal with complaints against Balfour in the same sensible, forthright and honorable way they dealt with complaints against Glenn Richardson.

  9. Dave Bearse says:

    Charlie, I expect your Courier columns here are copy and paste. Consider adding links within them here. In this case, a link to Atlanta Unfiltered would have been good. Walls’ brand of journalism needs all the support and exposure it can get. (Maybe you already do so, but in this case time or an oversight was responsible.)

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