published Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Panel recommends suspension of Georgia lawmaker

ATLANTA (AP) -- A panel has recommended the suspension of a Republican lawmaker accused of illegally claiming state pay, Gov. Nathan Deal's office said today.

A grand jury indicted state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, in September on felony charges of making a false certificate, theft by taking and a count of false statement and writing. He is accused of illegally claiming legislative expense pay and double-billing the state and his private employer for some expenses.

Balfour and his attorney did not immediately return calls seeking comment. Balfour previously acknowledged that he made mistakes, but the lawmaker's attorneys have denied that he committed any crimes.

Two Republican state lawmakers and a retired Georgia Supreme Court chief justice held a hearing today to determine whether to suspend Balfour. Under the Georgia Constitution, Deal must now suspend Balfour pending the outcome of his criminal case or until the expiration of his term.

Balfour has been under legal scrutiny for payments that he received for his work in the General Assembly.

He previously agreed to pay a $5,000 fine issued 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.

According to the indictment, Balfour sought legislative expense pay on May 7, 2009, for an expense that was also reimbursed by his employer, Waffle House Inc.

The grand jury accused Balfour of falsely filing paperwork to claim legislative expense pay on Aug. 8-9, 2011. Lobbyist reports show that Balfour was attending a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Texas during that period. On Aug. 9, a Georgia Municipal Association lobbyist bought Balfour's lunch at a San Antonio restaurant. The following day, another lobbyist bought Balfour a meal there.

Prosecutors said Balfour also claimed expense pay on Nov. 30, 2011, a period when lobbyist reports suggest that Balfour was in Florida. A lobbyist bought Balfour dinner in Orlando on Nov. 29. Another lobbyist purchased him a ticket to Disney's Epcot Center on Dec. 1.

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