Today’s Courier Herald Column
Boiled down to basic facts, the ethics complaint to be discussed at Wednesday’s Senate Ethics Committee meeting are fairly straightforward. There are a series of expense reimbursements claiming mileage to and from State Senator Don Balfour’s Snellville home each of the 50 days the legislature was in session plus 126 days they were not during 2011. Several of those days which he claimed mileage to the capitol he is also reported by lobbyists to have been entertained at their expense in other states.
The mileage reports claimed from Snellville to Atlanta on the days when Balfour was reported out of state on back to back days are clear violations of submitting false expense claims. Each expense report includes an affidavit signed by the legislator stating the expenses are true and correct. It is extremely doubtful that Balfour drove to his home each of the days he claims while simultaneously renting a $2,100 per month midtown Atlanta condo ostensibly so he can be closer to his office during session. It is ludicrous to presume that Balfour drove from Snellville to Atlanta on days that lobbyists were spending entertainment dollars on him in Texas.
It is with these facts that the Senate will begin discussions today. What facts remain unclear is what they can actually do about this.
The Committee On Assignments – the group that resulted from the Republican Caucus stripping Casey Cagle of his authority to appoint committee chairmen – could strip Balfour of his Chairmanship of the Rules Committee and the virtual veto power over all legislation that comes with it. Yet despite these abuses having been clear for months they have chosen not to do so.
The Senate Ethics Committee’s role is even less clear. Senators privately claim they are not even sure what power they have in this case. Some speculate that because the complaint was filed by a citizen and not a member of the legislature that they don’t have the power to act on it. Others are not sure the committee has the power to do any more than refer the complaint to either the Georgia Campaign Finance Transparency Commission (which was formerly known as the State Ethics Commission) or to the Attorney General.
The Campaign Finance Transparency Commission is already backlogged with ethics cases that they can barely find time to dismiss. Given their budget appears to be cut anytime they choose to move an investigation forward, it remains doubtful that they can successfully discharge this case with any finding upon the obvious facts. Plus, the complaint regarding Balfour is not a campaign related complaint, but a charge that he has violated Georgia law by submitting false expense reports. That is a matter generally reserved for the Attorney General.
While Georgia’s former Attorney General prosecuted Ralph David Abernathy under a previous Governor, the budget of the AG’s office has since been realigned due to cuts. The Attorney General no longer has a standing investigative unit. While there is language in Georgia’s official code that prohibits investigating the legislature when it is in session, Sine Die was at the end of March and they’re out until January, just for the record. Without investigators to look into the matter further, the responsibility for bringing a case to the office for disposition is also available to one of two other Georgia entities who do maintain an investigative unit: The GBI or the Department of Audits.
While many can request the GBI begin an investigation, only the Governor has the power to direct an investigation. The Department of Audits ultimately reports to the legislature, and the current agency head is planning a June retirement. While the Governor can make an interim appointment as successor, ultimately the legislature has to ratify the appointment. Note earlier in this column about the defendant having a virtual veto power over the path of legislation and you’ll see the problem with this method.
What remains significant about the Balfour case isn’t the amount of money involved, but the arrogance enabling the abuse of power that is involved. This arrogance breeds from the fact that Georgia’s current ethics laws make it virtually impossible to regulate the activities of legislators within ethical or even legal boundaries.
Every Senator on this Ethics Committee needs to be asked publicly, on the record, as to what the authority and potential actions could be taken, along with the potential consequences that can result. Anything less than clear and precise answers will prove the point that proponents of ethics reform of Georgia bestowed upon the deaf ears of legislators during the last session. Georgia’s ethics laws are insufficient and unenforceable. The legislature is incapable of regulating itself. Severe changes in enforceability and accountability are needed to improve Georgia’s last in the country ranking with respect to potential for institutional corruption.