Here in the “Show Me” state, ethics reform has been an uphill battle as steep as the streets of Jefferson City, the capital.
It’s not that ethics bills have no supporters. Indeed, they do. The number of ethics-related bills and joint resolutions introduced in the General Assembly has increased each of the last three years, with 39 introduced in 2015. Democratic Gov. Jeremiah “Jay” Nixon has pledged to take the issue directly to voters in a ballot issue if lawmakers didn’t act. But not one ethics bill has passed in the last three years, despite Missouri’s dubious status as a state without campaign finance limits, lobbyist gift limits, or cooling-off periods for legislators registering as lobbyists.
As a result, Missouri earned a D- grade with a score of 62, tied with Idaho for 26th place among the states in the State Integrity Investigation, an assessment of state government transparency and accountability conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
That’s a drop from 2012, when the Missouri garnered a C- and a rank of 16th. But the scores are not directly comparable, due to changes made to improve and update the project and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
“The problem is that so little is against the law,” said Sean Nicholson, executive director of progressive advocacy organization Progress Missouri. “Things that are standard in other states don’t exist here.”
Missouri’s lack of certain limits allows state legislators and other elected officials to have a particularly troublesome relationship with lobbyists, who spent $1.85 million on gifts to state officials in the 24 months through last December.
Some of those lobbyists spare no expense: in January, four members of the House Telecommunications Committee met for a hearing at Jefferson City Country Club, paid for by the Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association. The committee had no assigned bills to discuss. The next day, as criticism grew over the frequency of out-of-town dinner hearings paid for by lobbyists, then-Speaker of the House John Diehl, a Republican, ordered that all committee meetings be held at the state capitol, effective immediately.
As the end of their terms approach, some legislators also will likely be searching for jobs as lobbyists. Since November 2012, at least 11 legislators have registered as lobbyists within a year after leaving office or announced resignations to become lobbyists. Some did not even wait until their terms ended to make the switch.
Republican Steven Tilley, who was House speaker in 2012, resigned nearly five months before the end of his term and eventually took on more than 20 clients, including Tesla Motors and Anheuser-Busch. But even after resigning, he continued to use his campaign committee to contribute to legislators he lobbied. In October, Tilley shut down the campaign fund and transferred its remaining half-million dollars to several political action committees.
“Nothing is politically right that is morally wrong”
It’s all legal, for now, but few would argue that it is ethical. “If you comply with all the ethics laws, that doesn’t make you an ethical legislator,” said Wally Siewert, director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Critics say many of the current practices make a mockery of the words engraved inside the Senate chamber: “Nothing is politically right that is morally wrong.”
More recently, a different type of controversial behavior focused public attention on the Legislature. Diehl, the former speaker, and Democratic state Sen. Paul LeVota resigned in May and August, respectively, over allegations of sexual harassment of legislative interns.
Meanwhile, Progress Missouri accused Senate committee chairmen of regularly violating the state’s open meetings law, known as the Sunshine Law. In a lawsuit filed in April, the group said Senate chairmen arbitrarily denied its requests to shoot video of public committee meetings. But Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem dismissed the suit in June without ruling on whether the senators violated the Sunshine Law.
Attorney General Chris Koster’s office defended the state in that case. His office also receives complaints of Sunshine Law noncompliance and, if the office finds enough evidence of a violation, it can represent citizens in court. But the last time it did that was in 2011.
“Having the attorney general’s office be your official enforcement arm creates some conflicts of interest if the public body that you’re seeking enforcement against is a state agency,” said lawyer Jean Maneke.
If the attorney general’s office declines to sue, the only other option available to someone who believes that the Sunshine Law has been violated is to take the public entity to court. “It’s a hurdle that is almost insurmountable, for most people,” Maneke said.
An enduring legacy
The brightest spot on Missouri’s scorecard was a B- for auditing. The grade reflects the administration of State Auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican elected to the position in 2010. Tragically, Schweich committed suicide on Feb. 26. He was running for governor at the time.
Schweich had a reputation for passion, impartiality and confrontation. His office’s audits were critical of Nixon’s use of other agencies’ appropriated funds for his own office and his use of state travel and security resources. Schweich once filed suit against Nixon in Cole County Circuit Court, challenging the governor’s ability to withhold appropriated funds and reassign them to balance the budget. In October 2013, the Missouri Supreme Court decided that Schweich had no grounds to file the suit.
In April, Nixon appointed Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, to the office, and she has yet to confront Nixon as Schweich did. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the auditor’s office wrote that Galloway “has made transparency and accountability priorities for the office. The auditor will continue to execute the duties of the office with fairness and impartiality.”
Whether Galloway embraces Schweich’s legacy will be closely watched in coming months. It may take longer for Missourians to find out whether lawmakers are serious enough about ethics reform to pass even one bill.