Mo. senator seeks new ethics investigation unit

AP News
Posted: Dec 02, 2009 9:56 AM

A Missouri Senate leader proposed legislation that would create a new investigative arm for the state watchdog agency over lobbyists and political campaigns.

The bill proposed Tuesday by Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, would create the office of independent investigation within the Missouri Ethics Commission. The office would review compliance with lobbyist reporting requirements, campaign finance laws and conflict of interest rules. It then could file complaints with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Currently, people can file complaints with the six-member Ethics Commission, which then decides whether to pursue the cases. The commission's investigation into complaints is closed to the public.

The legislation also would bar most political contributions from lobbyists to campaign committees for lawmakers or the governor during the legislative session. For the governor, the fundraising ban would extend to the weeks immediately after the legislative session, when the chief executive is deciding whether to sign or veto legislation.

Additionally, it would require legislative staff to file financial disclosure statements like elected officeholders and other state officials.

The ethics bill was among the first filed when lawmakers could start submitting bills for the 2010 session, which starts Jan. 6. Dozens were filed dealing with topics as diverse as restricting cell phone text messages while driving, loosening concealed weapon restrictions and reducing the number of lawmakers.

Shields said the resignations of three Democratic lawmakers this year because of ethical lapses created an opportunity to tighten the state's ethics rules.

Jeff Smith, of St. Louis, and Steve Brown, of Clayton, resigned after admitting that they lied to the Federal Election Commission when they claimed they had nothing to do with negative campaign material from a 2004 congressional primary. Talibdin El-Amin resigned after pleading guilty to federal bribery charges.

"There is little question that those issues have created this cloud over the Legislature when it comes to ethics legislation," Shields said.

House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, who proposed his own ethics ideas during a Tuesday news conference with local officials in Independence, said the legal problems of former Democratic lawmakers make it even more important to tighten ethics rules to forestall loss of confidence in state government.

"It's embarrassing that we have members who have broken the law," said LeVota, D-Independence. "I'm very glad that they've been held accountable. It taints everybody and clearly people from my own caucus. It makes everyone question their state rep."

Lawmakers have considered various ethics packages and campaign finance rules over the past several years. In 2006, the Legislature voted to eliminate state caps on how much can be given to political campaigns and to bar political donations during the legislative session. The law was tossed out by the courts, which found the ban on fundraising during the session violated free-speech rights. The Legislature in 2008 repealed only the limit on campaign donations.

LeVota said in an interview that his priority is to restore donation limits.

"It just doesn't make sense to let people give more money to a state representative than to the president of the United States," he said.

LeVota said House Democrats also would seek a waiting period before retired elected officials can lobby their former colleagues and a ban on political donations from gubernatorial appointees.

Shields, who supporting eliminating the campaign finance limits, said big donors found ways to circumvent the caps so money still flowed into politics and efforts to evade the maximum donations hindered transparency.