CBS46 NewsQuestions Raised About Relationship Between Senator And Lobbyist 6-22-2010

Questions Raised About Relationship Between Senator And Lobbyist 6-22-2010

Wendy Saltzman, CBS Atlanta Investigates
ATLANTAAllegations are surfacing about an improper relationship between another powerful Georgia state lawmaker and a female lobbyist. This comes just six months after House Speaker Glenn Richardson was forced to resign when his affair with a lobbyist was exposed.
Concerns over improper relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers have prompted new ethics rules as taxpayers clamor for more transparency. Now CBS Atlanta has uncovered a paper trail that raises questions about the closeness of Georgia's longest serving Republican State Senator and a female lobbyist vying for his vote.
Disclosures required by state ethics laws allowed us to dig up some questionable expenses bearing the names of State Senator Don Balfour and lobbyist Marcia Rubensohn..
Senator Balfour hid when we showed up at the Georgia State Capitol to ask him about some unsettling records we uncovered.
One of the records was a press release about a trip Balfour and Rubensohn took to Israel last year.
“Can you tell me the nature of your relationship with Senator Balfour?” Investigative Reporter Wendy Saltzman asked Rubensohn. “I'm busy right now,” she replied.
The trip was hosted by the National Conference of State Legislators. Senator Balfour is the President. The only two attendees from Georgia were Balfour and Rubensohn. And the only person on the trip who wasn't a public official or wife was the lobbyist, Marica Rubensohn. But on the press release she's falsely identified as part of the Georgia Senate.
When we first tried to speak Rubensohn she ducked into an office to hide.
“Can you tell me why you went on that trip and who paid for that trip?” Saltzman questioned. Rubensohn responded?: “I'm Jewish, so I went on the trip.”
She may be Jewish but that doesn't explain why Rubensohn was brought along on a trip for top ranking elected officials or why she was identified as part of the Georgia Senate.
We caught up with Senator Balfour on a campaign stop two months after he originally ducked us.
“Why is it that a lobbyist went on that trip listed as a member of the Georgia Senate?” Saltzman asked. “That was a mistake that she was listed as a member of the Georgia Senate. We needed someone there to help handle the trip, she's Jewish, she understands Jewish issues, and she went to help coordinate the trip,” Balfour told us.
And we found evidence their relationship goes back even further. In 2008, Rubensohn's disclosures show she paid $636 for a hotel for Balfour to attend a convention in Savannah.
“Can you tell me what trip she paid for you to attend in 2008?” Saltzman asked Balfour. “No, no. I have no idea. I can't imagine she would have paid for a trip that I would attend,” he said.
But it is all in black and white on her disclosures. And then there are his campaign reports.
“You paid her to do campaign work?” Saltzman asked
Balfour's campaign expenditures show he paid Rubensohn, a registered lobbyist, for "campaign work" back in 2009.
“She was um, that was um, my golf outing a year ago and I reimbursed her and someone else for some things they bought for the golf outing,” Balfour explained.
“You were paid $222 out of his campaign funds in 2009?” Saltzman asked Rubensohn.
“I have no idea what that is,” she replied.
And Rubensohn's disclosure reports also raise other questions. Out of 180 lunches she has paid for since 2008, 20 of those were with Balfour. That's more than one in every 10 meals. And it's disproportionately more than most of the 78 other lawmakers she dined with, most only one or two times.
“Can you tell me what your relationship is with Senator Balfour?” Saltzman asked Rubensohn.
“Senator Balfour and I have been professional for a long time,” Rubensohn replied.
And Balfour was adamant nothing inappropriate was going on here.
“Absolutely not,” he replied.
The Georgia Municipal Association, or GMA, who employs Rubensohn as a lobbyist stands by her and said there is no inappropriate relationship.
We met with GMA and offered them and Rubensohn another chance for an interview Tuesday and they declined.
So far there is no evidence any laws were broken although we have discovered GMA failed to disclose another trip they paid for Balfour and three other Georgia state representatives to attend last year.
And now Senator Balfour is stepping forward in a written statement to address accusations about the nature of that relationship.
Balfour released a statement about accusations of an improper relationship saying, "I will not back down and will defend my good name, because I trust the people of my district to see through this malicious smear and vote on the facts."
He continued, "The claim is an absolutely false and malicious rumor being spread around Georgia politics, just like so many other smears and rumors get spread everyday."
Should there be a tighter ban on the money used to woo lawmakers that can create the impression of an improper relationship?
Some in the legislature are calling for a ban on all gifts and meals that can create "special relationships" between lobbyists and lawmakers.
Democratic State Representative Mary Margaret Oliver told us, "Putting all of your entertainment expenses into one legislator. I think runs the risk of a lobbying legislator relationship being suspect."
She says there is no doubt lobbyists are seeking preferred relationships that have no place in Georgia politics.
Oliver continued, "Clearly special personal friendships that are based on hunting together and golfing together and having fancy dinners together can be something that inappropriately influences some individuals."
CBS Atlanta News never reported on the "rumor" Balfour refers to. We reported on the facts of the relationship detailed in disclosure reports. But Balfour responded to rumors he said declare him as "guilty until proven innocent."
Wednesday we again offered an interview to both Balfour and his wife, as well as Rubensohn, but all of them declined.

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