Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The Georgia Senate concluded its ethics case against Rules Chairman Don Balfour last week, choosing to fine Balfour $5,000 for filing false expense reports and demanding $366.96 in restitution. Balfour had earlier agreed to paid $800 for amounts he claims to have been an oversight. Most in the Senate wish this unpleasant matter would now go away. It will not.
Senator Josh McKoon of Columbus, the lone member of the Senate Ethics Committee to vote against the majority opinion, released a seven page dissent Monday explaining his take on the matter. He has also transmitted a referral of the case to Attorney General Sam Olens for possible prosecution.
Prosecution in similar matters is not without precedent, and should be considered in this case. As Senator McKoon notes, Senator Roscoe Dean was once prosecuted for the exact same offense in 1976. Dean claimed mileage from his home in Jesup to Atlanta on days when he was in the Bahamas. While Dean’s prosecution ended in a mistrial, he was censured by the Senate for his actions. It was not quietly swept under the rug by a closed door Senate committee session.
The issue of that closed door session is also one that reflects badly upon the Senate as a whole. McKoon’s opinion takes umbrage with the fact that the Senate chose to dismiss two citizen complaints on the grounds that the Senate didn’t have jurisdiction over them. Somehow, the Senators involved determined that Balfour ignoring Georgia law by not forming an audit committee which would have reviewed his own false expense reports did not represent a conflict of interest, and therefore did not give the citizens standing.
By the Senators initiating their own duplicate complaint, they were able to handle the matter internally, outside of public view. The Senators met and deliberated behind closed doors with newspapers taped over the committee room doors, and three state patrolmen guarded the door from the media. The image is stark when “openness and transparency” are the hollow buzzwords used to describe our ethics process for our government officials.
Balfour, for now, continues on as Rules Chairman, arguably the most powerful position in the Senate. It is he who decides which legislation that will make it to the floor for a vote. Senators who cross him see his committee as a legislative graveyard. Senator McKoon will likely not see much of his legislation pass in the near future. Such is the price for doing the right thing.
There was a time when Republicans were on the other side of the rhetoric on this issue. As a member of the minority party, Republicans often fought against the corruption of the majority. In addition to Dean, prosecutions against Charles Walker of Augusta and Ralph David Abernathy III were considered essential to restoring honesty and fairness to a system where the majority used their position for personal enrichment.
Abernathy was the recipient of a reprimand by the Senate, but for some Republicans that was not enough. One Republican took to the well to demand expulsion from the body for a misdemeanor crime not related to his public duties. Noted the Savannah Morning News, Gwinnett County Sen. Don Balfour, voted against the measure in protest, saying it was not harsh enough. He instead called for expulsion saying ”The standards should not be lower than the standards of elementary school children.”
That was 14 years ago. Before Balfour was in the majority. Before Balfour had a three quarter million dollar warchest to defend a $17,000 per year job. Before he could enjoy a lavish lifestyle paid for by lobbyists and campaign reimbursements. Before Balfour was in a position to personally decide which legislation has a chance to pass, and which will die in his committee.
Now, Balfour and his attorney would have you believe this matter is settled. Behind closed doors. With virtually no public scrutiny.
Balfour has now leveraged the fear he commands to infect the entire Senate with the fingerprints of his theft. The public must remain aware of how this case was handled when ethics reform is debated this January. The Balfour case has proven the legislature incapable of policing itself.
Gift caps will not solve this problem. Independent oversight, outside of the hands of the legislature’s appropriations power and the Governor’s appointment power, must be part of ethics reform. The public deserves and must demand accountability. A backroom bargain in a room with newspaper taped over the windows is insufficient.
Balfour should be facing a grand jury for his actions, not writing a check as if he is pleading to a speeding ticket. His breach of public trust should, at a minimum, cost him chairmanship of the Rules Committee.