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Oversight weak on expense payments to Georgia lawmakers

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ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers face little scrutiny and few standards when they claim upward of $1 million annually in expense pay under a system that relies heavily on their honesty.

Those flaws were evident in a complaint against state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, that has since been settled.

Balfour recently agreed to pay a $5,000 fine after acknowledging he claimed pay and expense reimbursements on 18 days when he incorrectly reported in-state travel or was outside Georgia altogether.

“I inadvertently made some mistakes,” Balfour said in settling the complaint.

The Associated Press reviewed nearly 1,500 spending reports filed by lobbyists and hundreds of pages of legislative expense reports to analyze the General Assembly’s expense reimbursement system. The review shows that Balfour’s errors were not common among other lawmakers. But an absence of oversight allowed for some discrepancies and at least one incorrect payment was made, largely the result of sloppy record keeping.

State lawmakers earn just over $17,000 in annual salary. Besides getting reimbursed for actual office and transportation expenses, state lawmakers can get a $173 daily payment for doing official state work outside of the 40-day legislative session. By law, they must be working inside Georgia.

Legislative leaders have more responsibilities than rank-and-file members and are generally eligible to claim more daily rate and expense pay than others.

Last year, Balfour claimed more than $26,000 in flat-rate and travel pay for out-of-session work, more than anyone else in the Senate. Rep. Stacey Abrams, the Democratic minority leader, was the top earner in the House, getting nearly $29,000 in expense pay.

The AP compared the expense reports filed by legislative leaders against spending reports filed by lobbyists from a five-year period ending in 2011. If a lobbyist reported spending money on a lawmaker during travel inside or outside of Georgia, the AP then reviewed the expense reports filed by the lawmaker on those days to determine if there was a discrepancy.

The review turned up an additional, questionable expense by Balfour. On Feb. 5, 2007, a lobbyist for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America reported paying nearly $300 to fly Balfour to a facility in Zion, Ill. Balfour reported working on state business in Georgia that same day, however.

Balfour attorney Robert Highsmith said Balfour’s records show he started his day in Atlanta, then took a flight to Illinois and returned the same day. He said that Balfour probably did not conduct much work inside Georgia on Feb. 5, but he said the expense – called a per diem payment – was legal.

There are no rules governing how much work lawmakers must do before claiming flat-rate daily pay.

“If you do any state work, you’re entitled to the per diem,” Highsmith said.

Similar questions are raised by an expense report filed by former House Speaker Glenn Richardson. A lobbyist bought Richardson a game of golf on June 8, 2007, immediately after the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s spring conference on St. Simons Island. That same day, Richardson claimed a flat-rate daily payment for doing official state business.

The dates on lobbyist reports are inexact. Some lobbyists report the date they purchase or get billed for a gift to a lawmaker, not when they actually give that gift. In this case, the lobbyist’s report shows that the golf game was related to a chamber conference held on June 5-7. Richardson claimed flat-rate pay on those days, too.

Richardson, who resigned in 2009, said he could not discuss that payment in detail because he no longer has the relevant calendar records. Richardson said that his office assistant used to keep track of his out-of-session appointments and presented him with a report showing how many days of flat-rate pay he could claim. Richardson said he generally filed for less pay than he actually earned.

“I didn’t want to be criticized for taking something even if I was entitled to it,” said Richardson, who recently announced his intent to seek an open state Senate seat.

Former Rep. Vance Smith, who later became the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, had similar conflicts. A lobbyist reported buying him lunch on July 11, 2008, in Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, he claimed pay for in-state work from July 9-14. In a similar situation, a lobbyist reported buying Smith a meal in Chicago on July 30, 2008. He reported working in state on July 30-31.

Smith did not return calls seeking more information.

Other cases involve outright errors. Rep. Stacey Abrams, the Democratic minority leader, received $173 in daily pay plus mileage for working in Georgia on Nov. 20, 2011. That same day, a lobbyist reported buying Abrams a $6 cab ride in Miami. When asked about the discrepancy, Abrams reviewed her calendar and said she made a mistake. She flew to Florida for a conference held by the State Government Affairs Council Foundation on Nov. 19 and did not return until two days later.

Abrams has reimbursed the state $181 for the pay she collected on Nov. 20 because lawmakers cannot claim flat-rate pay for out-of-state work. She said an assistant in her office made a mistake when sending expense paperwork to the General Assembly fiscal’s office, resulting in the error.

“My goal personally has been to be as a transparent as possible,” she said.

Robyn Underwood, the fiscal officer for the General Assembly, said her staff corrects obvious errors and occasionally rejects an expense that is impermissible. But they mainly assume that people are behaving honestly. Lawmakers must sign a statement promising their vouchers are correct before getting paid.

“It’s really not my place to assume someone’s not telling the truth,” she said.

Debbie Dooley, a coordinator for the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, filed one of the complaints over Balfour’s expenses. She said state lawmakers are underpaid and should be able to get paid for their expenses and work done outside of the annual legislative session. But she said someone outside the General Assembly needs to audit the reports filed by lawmakers.

The Legislative Fiscal Office does receive an annual audit, but that review focuses on accounting issues — for example, whether the staff can show the proper documentation for a transaction and making sure money flows from the correct accounts. Those reviews do not delve into whether lawmakers are telling the truth.

“I think there needs to be tighter and stricter oversight with the system,” Dooley said.


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