published Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Jury acquits Georgia state lawmaker of all charges

ATLANTA — A jury today acquitted a state lawmaker accused of illegally claiming mileage and expense reimbursement from the state.

The Fulton County jury found Sen. Don Balfour not guilty on all 18 felony counts against him. The Snellville Republican was indicted in September on charges of making a false certificate, theft by taking and a count of false statement and writing.

He was accused of illegally claiming legislative expense and mileage pay and double-billing the state and his private employer for some expenses. Balfour's lawyers didn't deny that he submitted some inaccurate reports, but they said he didn't deliberately try to take money from the state and said he was being unfairly targeted for inadvertent mistakes.

Attorney General Sam Olens said in a statement that he respects the jury but is disappointed in the verdict. Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents found Balfour was reimbursed for expenses he didn't incur and that there were too many requests for them to be 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," Olens said.

Balfour previously agreed to pay a $5,000 fine levied by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting pay for in-state work and travel on days when he was elsewhere. Lawmakers can only claim that pay if they are conducting official business inside Georgia. They can collect expenses while traveling outside the state if they are part of an approved delegation.

Gov. Nathan Deal last month signed an order suspending Balfour pending the outcome of his trial. Under state law, Balfour's suspension is immediately lifted because of the acquittal.

The Senate Republican leadership reacted swiftly, removing him from his committee leadership positions and suspending him from the Senate Republican Caucus. Senate Republican leaders did not immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment on the verdict.

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