Political Activist and TEA Party leader Debbie Dooley has called a press conference for 4:00pm today to announce that she will be filing additional ethics charges against Don Balfour. Balfour chairs the Senate Rules Committee and has been under fire for documented abuses of the per diem and mileage reimbursements which he has claimed on expense reports. Each report contains a signed affidavit claiming the expenses are true and correct.
Balfour has claimed mileage for driving from his Snellville home to the Capitol and back for 173 days in 2011 alone, despite not even being in the state during many of those days, and despite the fact that he maintains a $2,100 per month condominium in Atlanta paid for out of his campaign treasury.
Balfour also has made it clear that he stays in the Atlanta condo when in session, justifying the expense to Jim Walls with “It’s not easy to get a place for four months, especially a nice place…I’ve stayed at terrible places. I’m not going to do that again.” Walls is a former Atlanta Journnal-Constitution editor. He uncovered Balfour’s transgressions and documented them in excruciating detail at his website, Atlanta Unfiltered.
Balfour already has one ethics complaint pending with the Senate ethics committee. The committee met earlier this month, only to vote during the meeting that they do not have jurisdiction because the alligations against Balfour do not meet the scope they are allowed to address under Georgia code 45-10-90.
This code does specify that Senators may address issues of Conflict of Interest and Improper Conduct. Ethics committee members have somehow decided Balfour’s continued filing of false expense claims does not meet the definition of either. From the code section:
(4) “Conflict of interest” means an individual has multiple interests and uses his or her official position to exploit, in some way, his or her position for his or her own direct, unique, pecuniary, and personal benefit.
(6) “Improper conduct” means a member of the General Assembly:
(A) Engages in conduct that is a conflict of interest;
(B) Engages in conduct that is an abuse of official power; or
(C) Illegally uses an employee in a political campaign.
Let’s break this one down, and let’s hope the Senators are paying attention.
Don Balfour is head of the Senate Rules Committee. Among the duties of the Rules Committee is to have oversight of legislators’ expense reports, as found in Georgia Code Section 28-1-8(e):
(e) The Senate Rules Committee shall designate an audit subcommittee to examine and review, not less than once every two months, legislative expenditures, including all vouchers submitted by members of the Senate, as provided for in this Code section, for which the members have received payment. The subcommittee is authorized to issue reports of its examination and review. The House Information and Audits Committee shall examine and review, not less than once every two months, legislative expenditures, including all vouchers submitted by members of the House of Representatives, as provided for in this Code section, for which the members have received payment. The committee is authorized to issue reports of its examination and review.
So the Rules committee is required to have a subcommittee to audit expense reports of legislators. Required because Georgia law has the word “shall” right there at the beginning. How has Don Balfour treated this legal requirement of his committee? He’s ignored it. For years. As the AJC reported in 2010:
The system, however, is largely self-policed. Say it’s July and a lawmaker needs to drive from his home district to the Capitol for a meeting. If the legislator is a rank-and-file member, he is supposed to first ask his committee chairman to approve the per diem payment. But every lawmaker can get per diem payments for up to seven days a year with no questions asked. Those days are known as a “committee of one days.”
If the lawmaker’s committee chair signs off on the expense, the lawmaker comes to Atlanta and does his business. He then signs a voucher saying he worked that particular day and lists how many miles he drove. The voucher gets submitted to the Legislative Fiscal Office, and the lawmaker gets paid. Committee chairmen said the requests are largely on the “honor” system, although it is a crime to claim unearned expenses.
But Rep. Mike Coan (R-Lawrenceville), chairman of the House Industrial Relations Committee, said he has questioned a colleague’s request before, and the lawmaker withdrew the request. Coan would not name the legislator.
Lawmakers don’t have to submit receipts to justify the $173 expense or keep a mileage log or even document the mileage driven. But once a month, the Fiscal Office produces a report detailing how much each lawmaker was paid in travel and expenses. In the House, the report goes to Rep. Chuck Sims (R-Ambrose), the chairman of the Committee on Information and Audits. In the Senate, it goes to Balfour, the Rules Committee chairman.
Sims said he checks the report each month, as required by state law. If anything looks unusual or raises a red flag, he’ll alert the speaker. Balfour said he looks it over.
But state law says that the Senate Rules Committee must have an audits subcommittee “to examine and review, not less than once every two months, legislative expenditures, including all vouchers submitted by members of the Senate, as provided for in this Code section, for which the members have received payment. The subcommittee is authorized to issue reports of its examination and review.”
No such subcommittee exists. (emphasis added)
No such subcommittee exists? It’s required by Georgia Law. The person charged with setting up this subcommittee is the Committee Chair. The one who claims more committee of one days than any other Senator. The one who is then also charged with ensuring that no one abuses this system. The one who has signed claims for mileage for years when he clearly isn’t driving those miles.
And the Senate ethics committee wants us to believe that this scenario doesn’t rise to abuse of power and/or conflict of interest?
The Senate continues to prove why a legislative body is incapable of policing itself with respect to abuses of power and ethical transgressions.
They also continue to prove that a “Committee On Assignments” is powerless. Every Senator who sits on that Committee individually is responsible for Don Balfour remaining as Rules Chair. He has violated Georgia Law with respect to his own expenses and with regard to requirements of his Committee duties for years, yet remains in place, unquestioned.
Given that the Republican caucus created this abomination of unaccountable power, each member also remains culpable.
The party faithful will gather in Columbus tomorrow. Any Senator who attends needs to be asked to go on record as to the above definitions, facts that are in evidence, and what their stand on a course of action should be.
We are a party of elephants, not ostriches. Our leaders should not be allowed to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that evidence has not been presented to prove this case. Continuing to try to quietly dispose of this problem should not be allowed. Republicans own this problem, and Republicans must be held accountable in dealing with it.
Republicans can send a message this weekend. They can also do so when qualifying begins in less than 2 weeks. And not just against Don Balfour. Every Republican Senator must be made to own this problem until it is dealt with.