Wink-and-nod ethics in the Missouri capitol

When it comes to collecting largess from lobbyists, the brazenness of Missouri legislators knows no bounds.
Over the years, they have invented any number of caucuses and special committees so that elected officials could be wined and dined without their names showing up on disclosure reports.
Now a report by Missouri Auditor Susan Montee suggests that lawmakers have shrugged off any collective sense of shame whatsoever. If legislative leaders think a party or retirement ceremony is in order, they simply have a staffer contact a lobbyist and order it up.
The state Senate administrator’s office has a bank account that receives donations from lobbyists “to pay for food and beverage costs of senators and Senate staff when working late … and to pay the costs of the annual staff Christmas parties,” Montee reported in a recent audit of the General Assembly.
The Missouri Ethics Commission approved the fund with the understanding that lobbyists would report the donations on their monthly expenditure forms, as required by law. But it appears that’s not being done in many cases, Montee said.
The House handles things a bit differently. Rather than bothering with a bank account, lawmakers and staffers contact lobbyists and ask them to write a check directly to a restaurant for food and beverage service.
The House keeps no records of the gifts, and many lobbyists don’t report the donations to the ethics commission.
The Senate account received donations totaling just more than $76,000 over a four- and-a-half-year period, from more than 100 different lobbyists. About $60,000 of that was used to pay for retirement gifts and parties for lawmakers, gift cards to employees and Christmas parties for staffers.
Donations to the House were harder to track, because they were paid directly to vendors, Montee noted.
In the grand scheme of the tin cup culture that thrives in Jefferson City, the amounts discussed in the audit aren’t huge. But they are reflective of a sense of entitlement that clings to the Missouri legislature like mold. Too many lawmakers are firmly convinced of their right to party — on the dime of groups that wish to influence their votes. And they keep coming up with ways to hide the gifts from public view.
In a response to the audit, the Senate described its “administrator’s fund” as “part of an on-going effort by the Senate to lower costs to the state.”
So, we should be grateful that lawmakers are charging entertainment expenses to lobbyists instead of taxpayers?
Thanks, but no thanks. For all their preaching about self-sufficiency during legislative debates, lawmakers don’t seem to feel obliged to practice it.
To its credit, the Senate did agree to follow some of Montee’s recommendations, such as notifying lobbyists of their responsibility to report donations to the ethics commission.
The House response, on the other hand, is an exercise in defiance. It curtly notified the auditor that the House has “neither the jurisdiction … nor the legal obligation” to notify lobbyists of their reporting responsibilities. In fact, says the response, it was an “inappropriate violation” to do so.
You know a legislative body has lost its grip on reality when its leaders contend that reminding their benefactors to follow the law would be inappropriate. What’s really out of line is the constant pursuit of handouts and the ongoing quest to keep the public from connecting the financial dots between lawmakers and lobbyists.
Leaders of the House and Senate should use Montee’s audit as a catalyst to clean up their act.
© 2009 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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