Former U.S. Rep. Frank Ballance spent the past two years as an inmate at the Federal Prison Camp in Butner.
In 2005 he plead guilty to charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and money laundering surrounding a drug rehab center he helped create and fund in Warren County.
I went to the prison camp this morning and talked with Frank Ballance. It was his first extended interview since his conviction.
During our 90 minute conversation he maintained his innocence, telling me he did nothing wrong.
And if he had it to do over again, he would let a jury decide.
He also said his case was about politics, not race, as some had suggested, even though he added, “Many in the African-American community don’t trust the justice system because of cases like mine.”
The prison camp at Butner is classified as minimum security. There are no fences. but there are thick and locked doors -- and plenty of rules.
When the interview was approved, we were sent a letter stating no cameras were allowed. Unlike some prison interviews through glass and partitions, we were allowed to visit in a conference room. A prison counselor was there the entire time.
He wore a green prison-issue shirt and slacks, just like everyone else.
Ballance told me he did fail to file certain documents accounting for money at the Hyman Foundation in Warrenton and should have paid for certified audits, but says those things are not illegal, basically just sloppy bookkeeping. He glanced at the window, paused a moment, then turned to me and said, “I thought I would get a fair shake.”
Some wonder if this longtime state lawmaker and congressman is remorseful.
I think the answer is a qualified yes.
He was enjoying the early stages of a career in Washington when this case broke. A lot of people felt he could have held onto that position for a long time. He says most of his supporters and friends have remained loyal. He appeared proud to say, “People have not bought into the idea that I am a corrupt politician. The media may have, but not in my community.”
Particularly those he calls “the grassroots supporters.” He did tell me many he considered to be close friends and allies, those in high office, are for the most part “nowhere to be found.”
“A couple of my former state senate colleagues, like Ellie Kinnaird, have planned to come and see me,” Balance said.
He seemed more regretful that he did not allow the case to go to trial.
I asked, “Why did you plead guilty?” He maintains he did so to try and save the career of his son Garey, who was a judge at the time. He says his mother was intimidated and "threatened" by investigators and he wanted all of that to end.
Balance said he was fearful even an indictment on a felony charge would harm the career of Garey Balance. That charge never came. The charge of failure to report income to the IRS did land the younger Balance in Butner, in the same dorm with his dad for close to eight months.
How was that experience? Frank Balance said, “Well, OK. It was never great, but it probably helped both of us.”
The elder Balance says his son maintains “he (Garey) got the shaft.”
The former congressman is due to be released in 2009. Is there a chance it could come sooner? He doesn't think so. Ballance has filed a claim of prosecutorial misconduct in which he maintains the federal prosecutors "lied 20 times" before Judge Terrance Boyle.
His release date is set for February of next, and Ballance said he didn't think his claim would be heard or settled by then.
At almost 66, he seemed to be relaxed and in pretty good shape. Had an appendectomy last year but has fully recovered.
He spends a lot of his time working for pennies an hour in the prison law library, helping fellow inmates.
Balance is also working on a book, “The Frank Ballance Story,” in which he says his entire story of a tenant farmer’s son, to congressman, to convict, can be fully told.