In January 2016, Eric Greitens, then one of a crowd of candidates seeking the Republican nomination for Missouri governor, vowed that the public would always know where his political funding was coming from.
"The most important thing is that there is transparency around the money," Greitens told St. Louis Public Radio in an interview that month. "We've already seen other candidates set up these secretive super PACs where they don't take any responsibility for what they're funding ... because that's how the game has always been played."
He added: "I've been very proud to tell people, 'I'm stepping forward, and you can see every single one of our donors.''"
Less than a year into his tenure as governor, Greitens has not merely joined in the "game" of hiding financial information from the public — he has mastered it. Today, Greitens is one of the least transparent elected officials in modern state history.
Among the information Greitens and his inner circle have withheld from the public:
• The source of one of his largest campaign contributions. Greitens last year received a single $1.975 million "dark money" donation, money that in one day went from a generic nonprofit organization called American Policy Coalition Inc. to a generic federal super PAC called SEALS for Truth to Greitens' campaign fund — a complex paper shuffle that had no apparent purpose but to get around state disclosure rules and legally hide the origin of the money.
“When drug dealers do this, it’s called money laundering,” John Messmer, founder of Missourians for Government Reform, said at the time. Greitens has consistently declined since then to provide any information about the source of the money. Its origin is still unknown.
• How his campaign obtained a donor list it wasn't supposed to have, and how much money it brought in. Greitens this year was fined by state election officials for failing to disclose that his campaign obtained a donor list from The Mission Continues, the nonprofit group that ex-Navy SEAL Greitens founded for returning veterans before he entered politics. Still unexplained is how the campaign got the list, as it would violate federal nonprofit rules if the group gave it willingly.
While Greitens has denied using the donor list to raise political funds, an Associated Press analysis last year concluded that his campaign took in almost $2 million from people who had earlier given to his charity.
• The amounts that corporate donors, lobbyists and others paid toward his inauguration festivities. Prior to Greitens' January inauguration, supporters set up a nonprofit group to accept donations to pay for his inaugural festivities. Those costs could more easily have gone through Greitens' existing campaign fund, but by setting up a nonprofit, his supporters were able to avoid revealing who funded the event and in what amounts.
It's not just the inaugural funding that has been kept under a veil of secrecy. As the Post-Dispatch discovered before Greitens took office, he also required members of his transition team to sign a nondisclosure agreement to prevent them from discussing the transition.
• Anything about his personal finances. As candidates' personal tax records became a major issue nationally last year, Greitens refused to release his, during the campaign or since. At one point last year, Greitens' campaign indicated it would release them if Democratic opponent Chris Koster released his. But even after Koster made his documents public, Greitens kept his records secret.
• Who is currently funding his public policy campaigns. After Greitens became governor, his former campaign manager and others created yet another nonprofit group, called A New Missouri, to promote Greitens' policy objectives through media advertising, community organizing and other activities. The organization was structured in such a way that it could raise money from donors without revealing to the public who those donors are.
Multiple Post-Dispatch requests for comment for this story to the Greitens administration and A New Missouri went unanswered over the past several weeks.
Donations as free speech
Much of the secrecy surrounding Greitens' financial backing is made possible by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said in effect that political expenditures by corporations are a form of constitutionally protected free speech. That led to an explosion of new nonprofit corporations, which can spend freely to promote political causes without disclosing where the money is coming from. Such disclosure would be required if they gave that money directly to a political candidate.
"This offers donors an additional way to ingratiate themselves with public officials ... (while using) their nonprofit status to avoid disclosure" of who is providing the money, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics, which opposes the practice.
"They act in the shadows. This sabotages transparency. We want to know to whom (a public official) is beholden."
Today, the continuing mystery surrounding A New Missouri is what bothers Greitens' critics most. Though the group is technically separate from the governor's administration, it is run by some of his closest political confidants.
The group produces ads and other promotions in support of Greitens' policy initiatives, but it also has involved itself in personal politics. In April, it released attack ads publicizing the personal cellphone number of a fellow Republican, state Sen. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph, who had been at odds with Greitens on a number of issues.
Greitens at that time maintained the group was an independent entity "that's separate from the governor's office." But in May, when Greitens led a Statehouse rally to put pressure on lawmakers to pass a measure regarding the electrical industry in southeast Missouri, he was joined by residents of that area bused in by A New Missouri, an event that was clearly coordinated.
Those and other activities have spurred concerns that the group is in effect acting as a lobbying organization on various issues for Greitens without registering as a lobbyist.
According to documents, the nonprofit group was created in early February, less than a month after Greitens took office, as a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt nonprofit. Its registered agent is Jeff Stuerman, who had been Greitens’ campaign treasurer. The nonprofit is run by Austin Chambers, who was Greitens' campaign manager.
The nonprofit's stated function is to “make sure Missourians know what the governor is doing and what he’s trying to get passed,” Chambers told the Kansas City Star this year. "The role of A New Missouri is to advocate for and promote the governor’s agenda." Chambers did not respond to a series of messages seeking comment.
There's nothing to prevent Greitens from using his regular state campaign fund to support such activities. But if he did that, he would be required under Missouri law to tell the public where that money is coming from.
A New Missouri, by contrast, faces no such burdens. Because of its nonprofit designation, it can accept unlimited donations and keep them secret — meaning if, for example, it's being heavily funded by businesses seeking state contracts, or lobbyists for industries seeking state favors, there's no way for the public to know that.
In some cases, he and his staff have let questions about major issues facing the state go unanswered, leaving residents in the dark about his positions on a variety of topics.
The issue is not merely hypothetical. Greitens' inauguration festivities were funded under a similar method of cloaking the money through a different nonprofit. Later, Express Scripts, the pharmacy benefits management company, confirmed in company documents that it had given $10,000 to the effort. Greitens subsequently announced plans to award Express Scripts a $250,000 no-bid contract to administer a planned state prescription-drug monitoring program.
In an interview in May on KMOX Radio of St. Louis, Greitens was asked about the criticism regarding his undisclosed donors. The man who, during the campaign, had vowed that Missourians would be able to see "every single one of our donors" appeared to disagree with the very notion of donor transparency.
“The people who believe in voter intimidation believe that the minute you make a political donation, that you immediately need to turn all your information over to the government,” Greitens said. “We believe in the First Amendment. We’ve always supported people’s right to do this. When people go in and they vote, nobody calls that 'dark voting.' ”
Some in the Legislature, including a handful of Greitens' fellow Republicans, were concerned enough by his administration's secrecy that a bipartisan group of them this year filed a resolution demanding a legislative investigation of Greitens' fundraising practices.
"The Governor's use of a charity that he co-founded as a source of soliciting campaign contributions without being transparent about such activities raises questions that deserve investigation by a co-equal branch of state government," stated the resolution. It ultimately went nowhere, but the concerns remain.
"People need to know where their support is coming from and what kind of support it is," said state Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, who was one of the resolution's co-sponsors. Still, he predicted, the Legislature probably won't take any further action on the issue.