Government
1:32 am
Thu May 3, 2012

Missouri Politics: Hiding Big Donations Is Easy And Legal

Missouri is the only state where someone could donate $1 million to a political campaign, cover it up, and not have broken the law. It is one of only four states that have no limits on campaign contributions.

There is no legal limit the value of a gift that a lobbyist can give an elected official.

Controlling the influence of money in Missouri politics has always been an elusive goal. A couple of years ago two young legislators from the Kansas City area took a shot at tightening the very loose system. Jason Kander is a Democrat. Tim Flook is a Republican. The bipartisan effort appeared to have had an effect, though indirectly. But the gains were taken away by a court this year, and transparency in Missouri politics took a two-year step backward.

Jefferson City And Kabul

Before he was a member of the Missouri House, Kander was in army intelligence in Afghanistan – doing anti-corruption work in the Afghan government. He said that taught him some lessons that resulted in disappointment after he returned home.

“Basically it was my job to figure out which bad guys were pretending to be good guys,” says Kander, “and when I came home and I ran for the legislature and I got to Jefferson City I found that it just, frankly, was not as different from Kabul as it should be."

A Culture Of Concealing Donations

Kander continues, “It is literally legal for a politician to take $1 million from one special interest or another, launder those funds and then do things that have directly to do with that special interest, and then tell their constituents they never took money from that special interest."

Kander says a tactic often used to cover up where the campaign money is coming from is to launder it through a non-profit committee that has a stated mission of doing something beneficial to the state. Kander illustrates his example by coining a fictitious name for such a committee, “Missourians for Really Good Things.”

Such a committee is not required to disclose its donors because it is not registered as a campaign committee.

And Still More Problems

Kander says when he was learning the ropes in Jefferson City he saw other serious corruption risks. For example, Missouri is one of the few states in which the ethics commission can't start an investigation on its own. If the legislature does call for an investigation, it is not against the law to lie to the ethics commission or to obstruct its actions. Another weakness, he says, is that in Missouri a state senator or representative can leave office go to work as a lobbyist the next day.

With Kander and Flook co-authored an ethics bill that would have corrected many of those things. It got nowhere, but parts of it were tacked on to another bill that passed two years ago. Then, in February, that law was struck down by a court.

Who Is To Blame?

Kansas City Star political columnist and KCUR Up to Date host Steve Kraske says the suspicion among many Democrats and some Republicans is that the bill that did pass was intentionally designed to flunk a court test after relieving the pressure on legislators to tighten the rules. The court gutted the bill because in violated a state requirement that bills must be devoted to only one subject, a rule that reporters and experienced legislators are very familiar with.

Kraske says both parties share the blame for Missouri's loose political money climate. Republican leaders avoiding the issue this year just as Democratic leaders did when they controlled the legislature.

New Proposals And Current Debate

Just days after the court struck down the latest changes to the ethics law, Jason Kander introduced a bill to reinstate the protections the court overruled and do it in a way that would stand up in court.

At the time House Speaker Stephen Tilley said the bill was likely to fail because it would bring back campaign contribution limits. Tilley says limits don't work, but only inspire the devious to find ways to funnel money into the process that are even harder to track. Still, Tilley told statehouse reporter Marshall Griffin that he would call for a vote on the bill if it made it through committee.

As of the first of May, eight bills dealing with campaign ethics had been filed this year, and none had made it through committee. When KCUR news called Tilley, fielded the matter to GOP floor leader Tim Jones. Our reporter contacted Jones' office several times, but he never returned the calls.

Speaker pro-tem Shane Schoeller did return KCUR's call. Schoeller said there was a “possibility” Kander's bill and a GOP Senate version might pass. His rationale was that he and the vast majority of both houses voted for the bill that was vacated, and he thinks that same majority would do so again with a new bill that is not flawed.

Like Tilley, Schoeller is not a fan of campaign contribution limits, though he thinks it is important for people to know who is contributing to a candidate. He also says that most important is to only elect candidates of good character. “It is up to the people that are elected and the character of individuals who are elected. Get people of good honest character who are not willing to be influenced by a donation,” was Schoeller's take on the issue.

Democrat Kander disagrees. He says that contribution limits are needed to keep big money interests from drowning out the voice of the ordinary citizen. And he believes the limits will work if combined with prohibiting political action committees from donating to each other. “I think those two need to go together,” he says.

Republican Schoeller puts more focus on enforcement after the fact. He says the number one protection needed is more teeth for the ethics commission. He says if the commission has the authority to levy stiff penalties and does so consistently, that would serve as a sufficient deterrent.

More Transparency Coming?

Every ethics need Schoeller and Kander mentioned is covered by some bill currently in the hopper. There is even a Republican bill from Senator Chuck Purgason that includes the campaign contribution limits that seem to have so little support in his own party. But columnist Kraske predicts that none of the bills will pass this year.

“We're going to go through a major election cycle with the wild-wild west sort of being the template for this election in terms of how it's going to be staged,” says Kraske, “and I don't think anything's going to pass this year. I don't think anything is going to pass, maybe, in the next three or four years, until more citizens begin to voice their concerns about this.”

In this Internet age, it's not that hard for the public to voice concerns. But reporters working on an ongoing Public Radio International project on transparency in government say it may take a major corruption scandal to encourage Missourians to do that.