ETHICS

Balfour defense calls state senator ‘sloppy’

Despite a background in finances, attorneys argue he is no criminal.

By Kristina Torres ktorres@ajc.com and Chris Joyner cjoyner@ajc.com

State Sen. Don Balfour is either a detail-oriented money man except when he conveniently forgets to be, or he is a “big-picture” public servant who never took to the very field in which he earned his degree: accounting.

It will be up to jurors to pick which one, as opening arguments began Monday in a fraud trial that could cost the Snellville Republican his freedom. Both sides agreed the case hinges on how a jury perceives that most mundane of office tasks: filing travel reimbursements.

Once one of the most powerful politicians in Georgia, Balfour faces 18 felony counts

related to expense reports he filed with the General Assembly over a period of years. The former chairman of the Senate Rules Committee is accused of intentionally taking reimbursement for expenses to which he was not entitled.

“This is not a case about just money,” Georgia Assistant Attorney General David McLaughlin said. “This is a case about a loyalty, honor and respect of the system.”

Defense lawyer Ken Hodges said Balfour figured out early in his career that he hated accounting because he was not good with details. “He’s sloppy,” Hodges told the jury. “He’s not good with paperwork.”

But that did not make him a criminal, Hodges said: “It’s not in Donald Balfour’s DNA to be false.”

The 13-member jury, including one alternate, consists of eight women and five men. Among them are a homemaker, nurse, part-time pre-kindergarten teacher and an information technology coordinator. Several jurors either have some kind of accounting experience or experience dealing with expense reimbursements.

The case is expected to last two to three days. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Henry Newkirk is presiding.

The only witness called Monday was for the prosecution. Cindy Owens, an accounts payable supervisor for Waffle House — Balfour’s employer — answered questions about how Balfour submitted his expenses for work. Echoing the defense’s opening statement, McLaughlin asked Owens a series of questions that painted Balfour as chronically late in filing his expenses and often claiming items that were not allowed, such as trips to the gift shop while traveling on business.

Owens said sometimes Balfour would turn in expenses late but get the approval from the company’s chairman or president to get them paid anyway.

Owens said Waffle House reimbursed Balfour $1,048.84 in expenses related to a 2009 trip to the National Conference of State Legislators. In the indictments, Balfour is accused of filing for state reimbursement for claims also paid by Waffle House.

In cross-examination, defense co-counsel William Hill Jr. parsed the expense report for that trip, pointing out that Balfour repaid Waffle House when the double billing was brought to his attention.

Afterward, once the jury had been dismissed for the day, Balfour walked over and gave Owens a hug.

Both sides tipped their hands early as to their line of attack. Monday morning during jury selection, Hill asked potential jurors about their willingness to be impartial in judging Balfour. The questions included whether any of the jurors worked more than 60 hours a week or whether they believed attention deficit disorder is a real disorder or if it is “grossly overdiagnosed.”

The defense’s strategy includes claiming Balfour’s submission of bogus reimbursement claims was an honest mistake, perhaps the result of a medical condition, and was not an attempt to defraud taxpayers.

If convicted, Balfour could face up to 10 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. He also would lose his seat in the Senate.