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.
Those errors were particularly troubling since Balfour, as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, was legally required to set up a panel to scrutinize expenses claimed by his colleagues — a job Balfour acknowledges he never did. He 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 — sometimes being entertained by lobbyists.
“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 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 due to sloppy record keeping.
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 and generally are 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 Georgia, the AP then reviewed the expense reports filed by the lawmaker on those days.
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., and buy him lunch. However, Balfour reported working on state business in Georgia that same day. 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. Simon’s 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.