Defense Lines up Witnesses as Balfour Trial Continues
Former gov. Roy barnes testifies for defense, says expense mistakes common
The state called just three witnesses before it rested Tuesday afternoon in the trial of embattled state Sen. Don Balfour, and the fate of the once-powerful Snellville Republican could be in the hands of a jury by the end of the day.
Jury members will have to decide if they believe Balfour, a Waffle House executive who holds a bachelor's degree in accounting from Bob Jones University, deliberately filed false reimbursement reports with the state or is merely a victim of his own carelessness. Balfour faces an 18-count indictment on felony charges of theft and false statements related to his reimbursement claims from 2007 to 2011.
The state attorney general's office has accused Balfour of intentionally claiming mileage and per diem for days in which he was not in Georgia. If convicted, the suspended state senator will lose his legislative seat and could face prison time. Balfour has admitted to mistakes in his requests for reimbursement, claiming sloppy bookkeeping and lack of attention to detail, but has denied intentional wrongdoing.
One of Balfour's staunch critics in the gallery wasn't convinced the state was adequately proving Balfour's intent to defraud.
William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a watchdog organization that has called for Balfour's resignation because of the inaccurate expense reports, said Balfour's defense "is putting up a very strong effort and seems to capitalize on even the slightest mistakes made by the state, and that could be a big factor in swaying the jury."
Testimony Tuesday morning from the state's second witness, legislative fiscal officer Robyn Underwood, contained some elements that seemingly were more helpful to the defense.
Underwood, who has worked for the General Assembly for more than 30 years and as head of both chambers' fiscal office since 2002, confirmed that Balfour claimed expenses for which he was not entitled. But Underwood conceded during cross examination that she had no proof that he intended to make false claims. She also admitted her office made its own clerical mistakes involving Balfour's reimbursement requests. For instance, her staff paid Balfour in error twice for one day in which he was entitled to expenses.
Lead defense attorney Kenneth Hodges III, a partner at Rafuse, Hill & Hodges, made a point of referring to the mistakes in Underwood's office as unintentional, drawing a parallel between the errors made by dedicated state employees and his client, a veteran state lawmaker.
Hodges' co-counsel William Hill Jr. later pointed out several errors in the record-keeping of the state's third and last witness, former Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent Wesley Horne, who misdated a piece of evidence, and in the state's indictment of Balfour.
Hill pointedly characterized the mistakes as "inadvertent"—an obvious nod to the defense argument that mistakes happen to busy people.