published Monday, December 16th, 2013

Opening statements begin in trial of Georgia Sen. Don Balfour

Don Balfour
Don Balfour
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ATLANTA — Prosecutors and defense attorneys offered different descriptions of state Sen. Don Balfour on Monday: he either intentionally claimed false reimbursements and other money from state government or was a dedicated public servant who was just sloppy with his expense reports.

A Fulton County Superior Court jury began hearing evidence at the start of a trial against the once-powerful Republican lawmaker. He is charged with 16 counts of making a false certificate, one count of theft and one count of false statement. Balfour is expected to testify.

Senior Assistant Attorney General David McLaughlin said in his opening statement Balfour repeatedly filed false information in claiming per diem pay and mileage reimbursements from the state for his work in the General Assembly. He also sought to pre-empt claims by Balfour's attorneys that the Snellville lawmaker made mistakes on his paperwork.

"Mr. Balfour kept very detailed calendar records, particularly when things were hectic with his schedule," McLaughlin said, noting Balfour has a degree in accounting and was familiar with submitting reports as a Waffle House executive.

Balfour's attorney Ken Hodges said his client doesn't dispute that he inadvertently turned in incorrect reports.

"We're going to show why that was a mistake and not a crime," Hodges said.

He said witnesses will testify that Balfour hated accounting and wasn't very good at it.

"Were mistakes made? Yes sir, yes ma'am. Every time there was a mistake made and it was brought to Mr. Balfour's attention, he paid it back," Hodges said.

He also outlined several instances where he said Balfour could have claimed more money from the state, saying he found more than 100 instances where Balfour was working on state business but did not submit reports. He also told jurors that Balfour voluntarily reduced his Waffle House salary when he was elected to the Senate and decided to opt out of the state retirement system.

"He is not the kind of person who would do this intentionally. He does not have the need to do this, and it's not in his DNA," Hodges said.

McLaughlin told jurors the case wasn't about money and showed them a copy of the form Balfour had signed certifying his reports were accurate.

"This isn't a case just about money. It's about certification. It's about loyalty, honor and respect of a system, and you will see evidence in this case that the defendant did not respect or was loyal to the system," he said.

Balfour has been removed from his committee leadership positions by Senate Republicans. He had previously served as chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, which controls which bills are brought up for consideration.

The trial is expected to last two to three days.

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