ATLANTA — A high-ranking Georgia lawmaker has reimbursed the state nearly $800 after facing questions about whether he was improperly claiming reimbursements for in-state work while dining out-of-state with lobbyists.
Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, wrote two checks last month to reimburse the state for daily expenses and mileage that he claimed last August, financial records show. Balfour, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said that he decided to pay back the money but has not yet checked his own records to determine whether he violated any rules.
“The idea was to take care of it and then later on we can look and see whether it was done right or wrong,” Balfour said.
Those reimbursements came after the news website Atlanta Unfiltered published a report questioning whether Balfour had improperly used a legislative expense account limited to costs incurred while working in Georgia during periods he was traveling elsewhere.
In the first instance, Balfour reimbursed the state for flat-rate daily payments and mileage that he originally sought for commuting from his Snellville district to Atlanta on Aug. 4-5. But on Aug. 5, Georgia Power lobbyist Glennis Barnes paid $50 so Balfour could attend a tour in New Orleans, according to records filed with the state’s ethics commission.
Balfour also reimbursed the state for three days of mileage and expenses that he claimed on Aug. 10-12, a period when Balfour attended a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Texas. Balfour serves as an at-large member of the association.
Several records indicate Balfour was present at the conference. On Aug. 9, Georgia Municipal Association lobbyist Tom Gehl bought Balfour a salad and lasagna at a San Antonio restaurant. The following day, Georgia Chemistry Council lobbyist Rudy Underwood reported buying Balfour lunch at the NCSL conference, although the report does not say where they were.
Balfour acknowledged that he attended the events in New Orleans and San Antonio but said he could not recall the exact dates. He said it is possible that he conducted state business in Georgia on some of those days.
“I can be in Atlanta working all day long at the capitol and I can fly to New Orleans that night or San Antonio that night and have dinner with a lobbyist,” he said. “Yes, that’s normal business practice.”
In both cases where Balfour paid back the state, he sought reimbursement for conducting work related to the Senate Rules Committee. That committee did not meet on the days in August when Balfour filed for expenses. As committee chairman, Balfour said Senate rules allow him to claim pay for state work even if it is not strictly committee-related.
“I meet with constituents, I meet with people at the capitol,” he said. “We go over legislation. I handle state business.”
Financial records show Balfour received more than $26,000 last year in daily pay and travel expenses given to lawmakers for working when the Legislature is adjourned, more than anyone else in the state Senate.
The number of payments raises questions, said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a government watchdog group.
“It does raise eyebrows about the number of per diem payments that were made, especially when he’s chair of a committee that doesn’t meet outside the session,” Perry said. “What’s being done to justify that kind of payment?”