ATLANTA (AP) — A jury on Thursday acquitted a state lawmaker accused of illegally claiming mileage and expense reimbursement from the state and will return to his Senate duties.
The Fulton County jury found Sen. Don Balfour not guilty of 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.
Balfour was happy and relieved at the jury verdict, his lawyer Ken Hodges said.
"He's had a burden that's been on him and his family for the last 14 months lifted off of his shoulders, which is just fantastic," Hodges said. "He'll be back in the General Assembly in January representing the people of Gwinnett County and the entire state."
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.
Hodges rejected Olens' characterization of Balfour's inaccurate filings as "numerous and systematic," saying that 18 mistakes (for the number of counts in the indictment) in five years is hardly systematic, especially given the volume of paperwork Balfour has had to deal with in his legislative career.
"I think he exercised a lot of poor judgment in this matter, and I know he wasted a lot of taxpayers' money," Hodges said of the attorney general.
Olens defended the prosecution and said he remains convinced the accusations in the indictment were valid.
"I do not apologize for standing for the principle that no person is above the law," he 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. According to the state constitution, Balfour's suspension is immediately lifted because of the acquittal.
"Our constitution and laws spell out a process in a situation like this," Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the Senate, said in an email. "That process was followed and today a jury returned a clear verdict. I look forward to welcoming Senator Balfour back to the Senate and continuing to work with him to advance a conservative legislative agenda."
Georgia State Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, said in a statement that the Senate has "adopted procedures that will prevent misuse of legislative expense accounts going forward, including regular review of expense requests by the Senate Audit Subcommittee."
The Senate Republican leadership reacted swiftly after the governor suspended Balfour, removing him from his committee leadership positions and suspending him from the Senate Republican Caucus.
Senate Majority Leader Ronnie Chance said Balfour was reinstated to the Senate Republican Caucus. The Senate Committee on Assignments met Thursday and appointed Balfour as chairman of the Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, as vice-chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, and as an ex-officio member of the Banking and Financial Institutions Committee. He was also appointed to the Senate State Fair Tax Study Committee.
Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy contributed to this report.