State Sen. Don Balfour cleared of all charges

Prosecutors unable to convince jurors that Gwinnett lawmaker stole money from the state

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State Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, has been cleared of all charges related to the misuse of his legislative expense account.

Jurors this morning found Balfour not guilty on all counts after three full days of listening to the defense and prosecutors present their case. Last September, a Fulton County grand jury indicted the Gwinnett County lawmaker and Waffle House executive on 18 counts that included making a false certificate, theft by taking, and making a false statement and writing.

The charges followed a 2012 ethics complaint that accused Balfour of reimbursing mileage expenses for time he spent on a lobbyist-paid trip. He paid a $5,000 fine levied by the Senate Ethics Committee. Jim Walls of Atlanta Unfiltered first reported on the expense filings.

Prosecutors were unable to convince jurors that Balfour intentionally tried to pocket thousands from the state by double-billing his legislative expenses. Balfour, who was first elected to the Georgia Senate in 1992, on Wednesday testified in his own defense the state actually owed him more than $23,000 for 115 days where he didn’t claim his $173 legislative per diem. His legal team tried pointing out that mistakes happened not only with his own record keeping, but also with state investigators.

“I should’ve gotten paid per diems for those days but for the fact that I didn’t turn them in,” Balfour said. “It wasn’t important. I wasn’t there for the money.”

The defense also called upon several prominent former lawmakers including former Govs. Roy Barnes and Sonny Perdue; former Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson; and Georgia Court of Appeals Judge and one-time state Sen. William Ray to attest to Balfour’s character.

Minutes after the verdict, Gov. Nathan Deal’s office immediately lifted his Gold Dome suspension so that he can return to work for the 2014 legislative session.

Following the decision, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said he was “very disappointed” in the outcome, but defended his decision to bring to the case to trial.

“The GBI investigation revealed that Senator Balfour requested and received reimbursements for expenses he did not actually incur: miles he did not drive, days he did not work, hotels other people paid for,” Olens said in a statement. “Those requests were too numerous and systematic to be simply isolated mistakes. If those requests had been submitted by an unelected state employee, they would have been prosecuted, and a state senator should not be held to a lower standard.”

This story is still developing. We’ll post more details when we have an update.