Posted tagged ‘Missouri Ethics Commission’

Wink-and-nod ethics in the Missouri capitol

October 5, 2009

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.


Citizens across Missouri call for stronger Sunshine Law

February 11, 2009

By Virginia Young

JEFFERSON CITY — From Brentwood to Cape Girardeau to Rolla, citizens who have battled for more openness at City Hall urged legislators Tuesday to strengthen the state’s Sunshine Law.

The witnesses told a House committee that current law provides inadequate notice of public meetings, especially when private land is being taken for commercial development. They also argued for tougher penalties, clearer record-keeping provisions and a right to electronic copies of public records.

“Elected officials should be trying to find ways to conduct business in the open, not to find ways to close things,” said Jay C. Purcell, a county commissioner in Cape Girardeau County.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said problems at the local level had spurred the proposed changes in the Open Meetings and Records Law.

For example, some municipalities have called meetings on 24 hours’ notice — the minimum time required by law — to approve developers’ plans in St. Louis County. Jones’ bill would require five days’ notice if the agenda included subjects such as tax increases, eminent domain or tax-increment financing.

Another change would require newly elected officials to abide by the Sunshine Law even before they were sworn in. If they met with other officials and the group constituted a quorum, the meeting would be open under Jones’ bill.

Officials who violated the law could be fined up to $500, even if the violation was unintentional. Those who purposely violated the law could be fined up to $8,000.

Under current law, those who “knowingly” violate the law can be fined up to $1,000. Those who “purposely” violate it can face fines ranging up to $5,000.

The bill also would open up the complaints filed with Missouri Ethics Commission. However, investigative reports would remain closed during an inquiry and would be permanently closed if the complaint was dismissed.

Former Ethics Commissioner John Maupin, of Creve Coeur, supported the bill. He said current restrictions made it impossible for commissioners to confirm the status of complaints and “allowed people to abuse the system.”

Groups representing local officials say the bill goes too far.

Gary Markenson, a lobbyist for the Missouri Municipal League, objected to requiring five days’ notice for meetings and lowering the threshold for fines when violations are unintentional.

Opponents also said small towns lacked the staff to compile detailed accounts of their meetings. If minutes must be written up every time two of the three county commissioners ride together in a car, “you’re going to require them to drive individually or have someone taking notes,” said Todd Smith, a lobbyist for the Missouri Association of Counties.

Jones said the House General Laws Committee, which he heads, would fine-tune the bill before sending it to the House floor for debate.

The bill is HB316.

Rep. Jones files omnibus bill

January 19, 2009

Rep. Tim Jones (R-Eureka) has filed an omnibus bill to strengthen Missouri’s open meetings and open records law, the Sunshine Law. House Bill 316, filed Jan. 15, contains several provisions, including requirements opening to the public most records and meetings of the Missouri Ethics Commission. The bill specifies that investigative reports prepared by Ethics Commission staff would be closed records until a decision is made by the commission regarding the complaint under investigation. If the commission would decide to dismiss the complaint, reports related to the complain would continue to be closed records. All meetings of the commission would be open, except for closed meetings when the commission deliberates a complaint. Rep. Jones gathered a bipartisan group of 18 co-sponsors for the bill. The co-sponsors include Rep. David Sater (R-Cassville), Rep. Mark Parkinson (R-St. Charles), Rep. Kenny Jones (R-Clarksburg), Rep. Jeff Grisamore (R-Lee’s Summit), Rep. Gayle Kingery (R-Poplar Bluff), Rep. Rodney Schad (R-Versailles), Rep. Walt Bivins (R-St. Louis), Rep. Shane Schoeller (R-Willard), Rep. Mike Talboy (D-Kansas City), Rep. Mary Still (D-Columbia), Rep. Jake Zimmerman (D-Olivette), Rep. John Burnett (D-Kansas City), Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst (R- Ballwin), Rep. Doug Funderburk (R-St. Peters), Rep. Tim Meadows (D-Imperial), Rep. Mike Corcoran (D-St. Ann), Rep. Rachel Storch (D-St. Louis) and Rep. Ron Casey (D-Crystal City). Among House Bill 316’s provisions, the proposal: 1. Requires most records and meetings of the Missouri Ethics Commission to be open. 2. Specifies that an association is covered by the Sunshine Law if it receives public funding through dues paid by a public governmental body or its members. 3. Defines “public meeting” to include any gathering of newly elected members of a public governmental body who have not formally taken office, but are meeting to discuss public business, with or without current members of the body, when a quorum is present. 4. Requires a notice to the public of a meeting to be extended from 24 hours’ advance notice to five days’ advance notice when the public governmental body would be considering or voting on a fee or tax increase, eminent domain, zoning, transportation development district or tax increment financing issue. 5. Defines the term “cause of action” in an exemption to the law as when “a lawsuit has been filed, regardless of whether service of process has been completed, or correspondence from a party to the body stating that litigation shall be filed unless certain demands are met.” 6. Limits persons attending closed meetings of a public governmental body to members, their attorneys, staff members and any necessary witnesses. 7. Requires data-processing programs used by state and local governments to allow for copying data easily accessed by software programs commonly available to the public. 8. Requires reasonable attorney fees be paid to a party successfully seeking disclosure of an investigative report compiled by law enforcement. — Missouri Press Association