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.