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Gov. Eric Greitens

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens in St. Louis on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • Gov. Eric Greitens has been criticized for attempting to stack the Missouri state school board with his own appointees in order to install his own top school leader.

One nominee turned down his offer of a seat on the board, and a member of the board called the Republican newcomer’s actions “incompetent.” Greitens withdrew the nomination of another nominee after she said she felt pressured by the governor’s office to oust the current state education commissioner.

But Greitens’ pick to replace Margie Vandeven, who has led the state’s school bureaucracy since 2015, was never clear.

Now, records indicate whom he had in mind.

According to a Post-Dispatch review of campaign finance records, Greitens paid $1,576 out of his campaign fund to bring Kenneth Zeff to mid-Missouri in August. Zeff is an Atlanta school administrator and education consultant whose familiarity with charter schools would appear to match Greitens’ support for expanding them in Missouri.

Greitens campaign manager Austin Chambers did not deny that Zeff’s trip to the capital city was in connection with his possible role as commissioner. Chambers defended using campaign funds to pay for the visit.

Zeff, who earned about $265,000 as the interim superintendent of the Fulton County schools, is now executive director of a nonprofit that supports public schools in the Atlanta area. Previously, Zeff was chief operations officer for a charter school management organization serving students in Los Angeles and New York.

In a 2016 application for a superintendent’s job in Nashville, Zeff focused on his charter school credentials.

“I have been responsible for building the structures and processes to implement our Board and community’s highly successful vision for a decentralized model, known as the ‘charter system’ of schools. This organizational and culture change has taken root in every corner of the district,” his résumé says.

Zeff, who was reimbursed for hotels, a car rental and a cup of coffee in Columbia, did not return messages left at his nonprofit office.

For now, Greitens’ attempt to remake the state board of education appears to be on hold.

The governor doesn’t have the power to single-handedly remove the state school commissioner. Rather, he appoints the school board members who have the ability to hire and fire.

Greitens came under heavy criticism after Springfield, Mo., resident Heidi Crane declined to accept Greitens’ appointment to the board. Crane was a last-minute choice to replace fellow Springfield resident Melissa Gelner on the board after the governor withdrew Gelner’s nomination. Gelner wrote that she was being pressured by Greitens’ administration to dump Vandeven.

The campaign finance records now show that Zeff was, at least, a potential contender for Vandeven’s job.

At the time, board members said it was uncommon for a governor to try to influence those appointees to fire someone.

“The State Board of Education is designed by the constitution to be somewhat independent,” board chairman Charlie Shields said.

Greitens decision to reimburse Zeff using campaign dollars is another example of the close coordination between Greitens the governor and Greitens the candidate.

Although state campaign finance laws say donor contributions are supposed to be used to support or oppose candidates for public office, chambers says the financial maneuver was legal.

Under state law, Chambers said, contributions may be used for any purpose allowed by law including, but not limited to, any ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the duties of a holder of elective office.

“This expense was incurred in connection with the governor’s duties. Not only was it a permissible expense because it was not for a prohibited purpose (such as personal enrichment), it was an expense whose permissibility is explicitly recognized by law,” Chambers said in an email to the Post-Dispatch.

University of Missouri Law School Professor Richard Reuben said Chambers’ explanation is a stretch.

“I would put it in the category of a questionable use of campaign resources,” said Reuben, who teaches a class on campaign finance law. “If someone were to present this to the Missouri Ethics Commission, I’m sure they would want to take a look.”

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, said Missourians should be disturbed by Greitens’ “bumbling attempt to orchestrate a coup at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.”

“Unfortunately, Eric Greitens has no respect for — or awareness of — the constitutional limitations on his power. His potential misuse of campaign funds as part of his underhanded scheme to depose the current state education commissioner and install his own handpicked choice seems to be yet another example of the governor playing fast and loose with the law,” Beatty said.

Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber said Greitens “is fully entrenched in the shady establishment politics that he promised Missourians he’d fight against.”