Growing Questions About 'Pay For Play' By Missouri Senate President Pro Tem

Apr 11, 2017

Did Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard sponsor a bill to help a Joplin business avoid a costly lawsuit in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations?

That’s the suggestion being made by some lawmakers, and one member of Richard’s own Senate Republican caucus says the matter deserves investigation.

“Look, the facts are he received large contributions, he filed legislation that would dismiss a lawsuit against the people who made those large contributions,” said Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican, on KCUR’s political podcast Statehouse Blend Missouri.
 
Allegations of pay-for-play

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin
Credit Missouri Senate

The questions about the relationship between Richard and David Humphreys have been raised most vocally by Rep. Mark Ellebracht, a Democrat from Liberty.

Last month, Ellebracht sent an open letter to Richard, noting that a generous gift to Richard’s campaign came the day after Richard pre-filed a bill that would significantly change consumer protection laws governing class-action lawsuits.

“To be blunt, Senator, this appears to be a textbook example of pay-to-play politics,” Ellebracht wrote.

Humphreys owns Tamko Building Products, a company based in Richard’s hometown of Joplin. In a 2014 case claiming the company's shingles were defective, a Jasper County court denied the company's motion seeking to send the case to binding arbitration. The Missouri Court of Appeals upheld that ruling. Tamko is now petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.

In December, Richard pre-filed Senate Bill 5, one of several tort reform proposals before the General Assembly this session. Richard’s bill would substantially limit damages in merchandising and product liability cases. Legal experts say it would make class action lawsuits, like the one pending against Tamko, almost impossible to bring.

The day after Richard pre-filed the bill, Humphreys donated $100,000 to Richard’s campaign account. Richard is term-limited and has not announced a campaign for any other office but can use leftover campaign funds to build influence by supporting other candidates.

A lawyer for Humphreys told The Kansas City Star that the pay-to-play accusations were “false and defamatory.” Joe Rebein wrote that the date of the gift was coincidental, coming just before a change in campaign finance law that would limit large donations. He noted that Humphreys made numerous other donations to other Republicans the same day.

Richard has declined to comment on the allegations in response to repeated inquiries.

“Senator Richard has been very, very consistent for the past three months in saying ‘No comment,’” said spokesperson Lauren Hieger. She added that the bill has numerous parts and that commenting on any of its details before it reaches its final form would be premature.

Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty, spoke at a live taping of Statehouse Blend Missouri in Liberty on March 30.
Credit Brian Ellison / KCUR 89.3

Hieger also wouldn’t comment on whether Richard was standing by what he told the Associated Press about Ellebracht’s allegations: “Tell him to kiss my ass.”

For his part, Ellebracht is unapologetic. Asked on Statehouse Blend Missouri whether he was “suggesting that the Senate President Pro Tem has been bought for campaign contributions,” Ellebracht responded, “I’m not suggesting it, I’m saying it.”

“He’s a crook,” Ellebracht said.

GOP Senator: Allegations ‘worthy of investigation’

Silvey has made no secret of his differences with Republican leadership in the Senate. He has publicly said previous disagreements—including his vote against “right to work” legislation supported by leadership—cost him the powerful chairmanship of the Senate appropriations committee.

But his comments earlier this week on Statehouse Blend were an unusual critique  of his own party leader’s conduct.

“Now, it’s not for me to determine motive. It’s not for me to determine if that was a quid pro quo. If somebody wanted to look into it, I don’t think anybody would be surprised,” Silvey said.

Silvey also suggested state and federal law enforcement agencies might have an interest.

“I’m not willing to go so far as to say that Senator Richard violated the law, but I’m also not a law enforcement agency,” Silvey said. “I would leave that up to them.

Silvey also couched Richard’s sponsorship of a bill that would seem to favor Humphreys’ agenda in the broader context of Jefferson City politics.

“I do think there’s been a pattern of behavior with this leadership team that certainly would lead you to conclude that people who have made significant contributions  got their legislation put to the front of the line,” Silvey said.

Sen. Ryan Silvey (right), R-Kansas City, spoke with KCUR's Brian Ellison on Statehouse Blend, April 8, 2017.
Credit Matt Hodapp / KCUR 89.3

Silvey criticized the reassignment of “approximately 60 bills” to different committees than they were sent to last session, which he characterized as an attempt by leadership to ensure the desired outcome of committee process.

“On this scale it’s pretty unusual,” Silvey said. “Sixty bills being referred to different committees? If you would look at the subject matter of those bills and who was on which side and how much money has been contributed, it certainly raises questions. What conclusion you draw is your own.”

The Senate Government Reform Committee held hearings and recommended passage of Senate Bill 5, and leaders have placed it on the Senate’s “informal calendar.” It is not currently slated for consideration but could be brought up at any time.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the disposition of the 2014 case against Tamko Building Products. No trial court has yet ruled on the merits of the case.

Brian Ellison is a contributor and host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend Missouri. You can reach him at brian@kcur.org or on Twitter, @ptsbrian.