Special Report: Missouri Ethics Unveiled

Missouri Ethics Unveiled

The First Amendment in the United States Constitution protects the free speech of all Americans. Few are aware that free speech includes political speech.

"If you want to give money to a candidate or party, then that is a type of speech," said political science professor Terry Smith. "If you are a candidate or a party and want to accept that money, then that's a type of speech."

Because of this, Missouri campaign finance laws are some of the most permissive in the country. That political speech allows a practiced political loophole to exist: dark money donations.

"It's essentially money that is given by individuals, companies or groups to candidates or political parties that you can't really trace well," Smith said. 

For the most part, campaign contributions in Missouri must be disclosed unless they're received by a 501(c)(3), (4) or (5) organization - more commonly known as social welfare nonprofit groups.

"You have to follow the money to understand what policies are being pushed and why they're being pushed," said State Rep. Kip Kendrick. "When you cannot see the donors, you can't understand why certain policies are moving inside the Capitol."

Kendrick filed House Bill 218 this session, an omnibus ethics bill that he said encompassed most of the ethics-reform promises made by Gov. Eric Greitens on the campaign trail.

"It includes a lobbyist gift ban, dissolution of campaign committees, closing the revolving door, prohibiting in-session fundraising, extending the Missouri Ethics Commissions' powers, banning campaign funds from being paid to family members and term limits for all statewide officials, not just the legislature," he said. 

Since taking office, Greitens signed two executive orders. One banned lobbyist gifts to the executive branch while the other banned any former staffer from lobbying the administration.

But despite the governor's promise to remain committed to that ethics plan, Kendrick's bill never even made it to the House floor this session. 

Similarly, Sen. Caleb Rowden's lobbyist gift ban bill hasn't been voted out of committee yet. Rowden also ran a campaign focused on ethics reform.

"I don't believe that everyone who takes a gift is corrupt," he said. "I think there's a perception problem that we absolutely need to address."

Other progress has been made thanks to Missouri voters. In November, 70 percent of voters passed Amendment 2, which limits campaign contributions. Although the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District overturned much of it recently, specific contribution limits still remain.

Smith said he wasn't surprised that ethics reform has taken a back seat this session.

"As long as people aren't saying 'get ethics fixed or you're out of here,' what's the motivation to really make it a high legislative priority?" he said. "It's not schools, it's not good roads."

But Kendrick said his constituents in Columbia are calling for reform, so he plans to re-file his bill for the 2018 session - this time with dark money and transparency provisions.

While he supports Amendment 2, he thinks it should be tightened up more or there will be unintended consequences that could lead to a whole new era of dark money in politics.

"You're just going to see these outside groups come in and spend dark money in this state at an unprecedented rate," he said. 

Smith said now that the contribution limits are in place, big donors are setting up dozens of these social welfare groups, even if they only had one before.

The fight over dark money and how to regulate it reached its peak this session after a newly formed nonprofit called A New Missouri ran attack ads against Republican Sen. Rob Schaaf in the past few weeks. Many of the ads featured his personal cellphone number.

The organization is run by Austin Chambers, the governor's senior adviser.

Because of Chambers' involvement and because A New Missouri is a nonprofit that supports and pushes the governor's agenda, many lawmakers are pointing the finger at Greitens, who has denied direct involvement in the organization.

In a tweet, Sen. Denny Hoskins said, "The immature actions of Chambers, senior advisor to the Governor, must stop. I believe Eric Greitens and my colleagues are not corrupt."

Other lawmakers said that just can't be true.

"I don't buy it that the governor doesn't know what's happening at a nonprofit that's set up to push his message," said Kendrick.

Smith said he believes Greitens is using his position as a political outsider to be a different kind of governor.

"As long as his base is intact and happy in Missouri, he doesn't have any motivation to really be a traditional politician," he said. "That would apply to where he gets his money and how he accounts for it."

Several dark money bills and amendments calling for donor recognition made their way to the Senate floor in recent weeks but failed. Several Senate Republicans filibustered efforts, citing free speech violations and privacy concerns during debate.

"What happens when you expose private citizens, you open them up to certain instances of retaliation from folks that disagree with them," said Sen. Bill Eigel. "I think that's an unintended consequence and when people understand that their personal data is going to show up on a list somewhere, they're less likely to be involved in that endeavor."

Rowden said when it comes to dark money reform, the devil is in the details.

"I think if you can find a way to write a bill that hits the ones that use it for the most egregious purposes and not hit the ones that are just doing good work, then I think you'd get a lot of support for that," he said.

The legislative session is officially over on Friday.

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