In the world of politics, it’s often better to be lucky than good.
No one illustrated that better than Don Balfour, the state senator from Snellville who was indicted and suspended from office this year but is now back in the good graces of the people who run things under the Golden Dome.
During the years he was chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Balfour was one of the premier power brokers at the Capitol. As the committee chairman, he could personally decide whether a piece of legislation would even be allowed on the floor of the Senate for a vote. If you wanted your bill to pass, at some point you would have to cut a deal with Balfour.
He was quite the moneybags as well. At one point, Balfour’s campaign bank account totaled more than $1.1 million in contributions he had pulled in from various lobbyists and other people who hang around the halls of the Capitol.
Balfour was not averse to accepting other forms of compensation, either. He has received so many free trips, meals, and sporting event tickets from lobbyists over the years that one of the capitol reporters gave him the nickname “Donnie Ballgame.”
In short, he has always been good at playing the political game and the political game has been good to him. Like most legislators, Balfour could do almost anything he wanted to without having to worry about the consequences.
But sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, you can have a stretch of bad luck.
Balfour got himself in a bit of trouble last year after he submitted several expense vouchers to the state requesting that the taxpayers reimburse him a few thousand dollars for mileage and expenses he had supposedly incurred on several official trips.
The only problem was, the dates Balfour wrote on those expense reports were the same dates on which several lobbyists had already swore they paid for his traveling and meal expenses.
Balfour was trying to get expense money from the state to which he wasn’t entitled, and it wasn’t long before several complaints were filed with the Senate Ethics Committee. Sen. John Crosby (R-Tifton) and the committee members reviewed the complaints for several weeks, with Balfour eventually agreeing to settle the whole matter by paying a $5,000 fine.
In agreeing to that hefty fine, Balfour evidently knew he had done something questionable. He was still paying a fine that totaled more than the money on all those expense reports, so you could argue that some form of justice had prevailed.
The Balfour story wasn’t over just yet, however. Attorney General Sam Olens has hopes of running for governor some day, so he decided to drum up some media attention by presenting the Balfour case to a Fulton County grand jury. The grand jury indicted Balfour in September on 18 charges related to the filing of those disputed expense reports.
These were more than just ethics complaints. These were criminal charges that, if they resulted in convictions, could mean a prison term for the lawmaker from Snellville.
Balfour did the smart thing here, hiring a team of savvy, experienced attorneys that included a former district attorney (Ken Hodges of Albany) and a former judge (William Hill of Atlanta).
He also got very lucky. Olens has never been a prosecutor, and the legal team he assigned to the Balfour trial did a stunningly inept job of presenting its case to the jury. Balfour’s attorneys quickly ripped through the evidence against their client, and a Fulton County jury did not take long to acquit Balfour on all the charges.
Just in time for Christmas, Balfour could count himself a free man. His suspension from the Senate was lifted, he was welcomed back by his legislative colleagues, and he didn’t have a criminal conviction on his record.
It’s better to be lucky than good, and Balfour was very lucky that his case was bumbled by a bunch of government lawyers who couldn’t shoot straight.
Whether that good luck will hold through the next reelection campaign is another matter entirely, but you have to think that right now, Balfour is happy not to be facing the prospect of a jail term.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.