Critics say Steelman ad misleading on fighting illegal hiring practices

Friday, June 6, 2008 | 1:22 a.m. CDT; updated 8:46 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Republican gubernatorial candidate Sarah Steelman has stopped airing a TV ad touting her actions against a construction company that hired illegal immigrants — just as Democrats intensified their criticism of it.

A Steelman spokesman said Thursday that the ad ended only because its paid time expired.

But the Missouri Democratic Party claimed Thursday that Steelman’s ad falsely asserted she had blocked state tax credits to a company that hired illegal immigrants.

At issue is the O’Fallon Lakes housing project funded partly with tax breaks from the Missouri Housing Development Commission, of which Steelman previously was chairwoman.

After illegal immigrants were discovered there in February 2006, Steelman issued a news release criticizing the lead contractor, Ohio-based NRP, as well as its partners on the project — Related Capital, of New York, and The Gundaker Commercial Group, of Chesterfield.

“The use of illegal aliens is inexcusable and will not be tolerated,” Steelman, the state treasurer, said in the Feb. 16, 2006, release. “This practice is going to stop. The state will not do business with developers who think they can rip off the taxpayers and workers of Missouri.”

Gundaker essentially shut down the work site and later took over as the general contractor, using union workers to finish the project. That resulted in a higher cost than originally expected.

Last December, the Missouri Housing Development Commission — of which Steelman no longer was chairwoman but remains a member — awarded additional tax credits to the affordable-housing project. As a result, the development can receive a total of nearly $10.7 million in federal tax credits and nearly $8.9 million in state tax credits spread over 10 years.

In Steelman’s gubernatorial campaign ad, an announcer declares: “When a company on a state building project hired illegal immigrants with criminal violations, Sarah Steelman blocked state tax credits, forced the company off the job, replacing illegal workers with new Missouri jobs.”

The Missouri Democratic Party claimed Thursday that Steelman had received about $20,000 in campaign contributions from people and entities associated with Gundaker and contended the ad was false because Gundaker did receive tax credits.

Steelman’s Republican gubernatorial opponent, U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, added to the criticism.

“It appears we have another Steelman stumble. She’s been caught taking money from the very company she claims to be targeting for employing illegal immigrants. This is the definition of hypocrisy,” said Hulshof spokesman Scott Baker.

Steelman’s campaign defended the ad, denied it was pulled because of controversy and denied any hypocrisy. Steelman stood up against the lead contractor at the time the immigrants were hired, and Gundaker later stepped up to finish the job with Missouri workers, her campaign said.

The ad “is 100 percent accurate. We stand by everything in the ad,” said Steelman spokesman Spence Jackson. “The cycle for this exceptional ad is complete, and that is the only reason it is not running.”

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