Leaders of the Missouri House and Senate have announced they’ll push ethics reform bills in the coming legislative session. In other news, Tiger Woods will join Promise Keepers and Richie Incognito will open an anger-management clinic.
It’s been decades since “ethics” and “Missouri Legislature” belonged in the same sentence. In the old days of Democratic control, House Speakers Richard Rabbitt of St. Louis and Bob Griffin of Cameron both went to prison on federal corruption charges. Now the Republicans are in charge, and former Speaker Rod Jetton of Marble Hill is not only facing a state charge of assault but also is believed to be at the center of a federal probe into pay-to-play politics.
Former state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, and former state Rep. Steve Brown, D-Richmond Heights, both have pled guilty to obstruction of justice charges stemming from a dirty tricks episode in a 2004 campaign. In a separate case, former state Rep. T.D. El-Amin, D-St. Louis, faces prison after pleading guilty to bribery.
The atmosphere in Jefferson City has begun to sicken even some of its members. State Rep. Brian Yates, R-Lee’s Summit, resigned his seat, saying he was sick of the “scams.” Even the payday loan industry, which now employs him, looked good to Mr. Brown after his stint in the capital.
And then there’s state Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, newly chosen to replace Smith. In what could be a new record, even for the Missouri Legislature, he’s embroiled in an ethics scandal even before he casts his first vote. One of the committeemen who voted for him, a young political operative named Gregg Christian, is now on Mr. Keaveny’s payroll as a consultant.
Mr. Keaveny’s arrangement with Mr. Christian is not illegal, but it raises questions. And it points to a major problem in state government today: the increasing power of paid political consultants and operatives. They are to politicians what oxpeckers are to rhinoceroses: little birds that live on their backs and eat ticks. The oxpeckers get fed, and the rhinos get relief.
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Politicians need a lot of money to get elected, and with eight-year term limits in effect, they’re always looking for their next gig. The oxpeckers raise money. They do opposition research, digging up dirt on opponents. They serve as contact points for lobbyists and special interests.
Now that Missouri has removed all limits on how much politicians can raise for their campaigns, there’s lots of money floating around, and oxpeckers are picking off a lot of it.
As speaker, Mr. Jetton opened his own oxpecking firm, setting up one-stop shopping. Amazingly enough, this is not against the law. When he was term-limited out of the Legislature after the 2008 session, he became a full-time oxpecker, signing up influential legislators as clients and never registering as a lobbyist.
His successor as speaker, Republican Ron Richard of Joplin, employed Tom Smith of St. Charles, who had his own oxpecking business, as his top legislative assistant. Republican Lieutenant Gov. Peter Kinder’s top deputy, Jerry Dowell, also has an oxpecking business on the side. He also served as executive director of the Tour of Missouri Bicycle Race, one of Mr. Kinder’s pet projects.
Now come state Senate President Pro-tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, and House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, with “ethics reform” bills that they plan to take up when the Legislature convenes in January.
The centerpiece of Mr. Shields’ bill is a provision to ban campaign contributions to lawmakers during legislative sessions. This is a good idea, but it misses the larger point: If a lawmaker can collect unlimited contributions, it makes little difference when he receives them. Furthermore, state campaign laws allow party committees to accept huge donations at any time, allowing money to be nicely laundered before it reaches its intended recipient.
Mr. Shields’ bill also would assign the Missouri Ethics Commission a full-time investigator. Unless this guy is Superman, he’s going to have a hard time keeping up with all of the complaints.
Mr. Tilley’s ethics bill is noteworthy in that he has been one of the chief beneficiaries of the oxpecker system. Mr. Jetton’s oxpecking firm raised $45,000 for him, and as the House Speaker-designate for 2011, he’s already collected $855,000 for his 2010 re-election bid.
Mr. Tilley’s bill would do away with some petty abuses, like the free meals and gifts from lobbyists (unless all the legislators are invited or gifted). It would make ex-lawmakers sit out a session before returning as lobbyists. Staff and contract agents (i.e., oxpeckers) would have to disclose financial information. People who donate money to the governor or legislative leaders couldn’t get a major state job requiring Senate confirmation. And the governor couldn’t accept money from any entity with a decision pending before any legislative department.
All of these would be nice, but they clearly don’t address the fundamental problem: Campaign money from special interests drives the public’s business. It employs a bunch of oxpeckers whose interests lie in perpetuating the system, not reforming it.
Unless and until Missouri restores limits on campaign contributions, the abuses will continue. Anything else simply is masquerading as ethics reform and is bogus.