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Missouri's stimulus money man: Paul Wilson

Thursday, May 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:51 a.m. CDT, Thursday, May 21, 2009
Paul Wilson, who is Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s chief financial adviser, has worked with Nixon
leading lawyer in many high-profile cases during that time. He is responsible for oversight
stimulus money appropriated to Missouri. He received his law degree at MU in 1992.

JEFFERSON CITY — Multi-tasking and number-crunching are important skills for anyone working with state budget issues.

Paul Wilson takes it a step farther.

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The governor's top budget adviser can listen to books on tape, draft e-mails and pick up phone calls — all at the same time.

Asked how he can absorb three simultaneous channels of information, he said simply: "Two ears and two thumbs."

Wilson said he has always been able to process data quickly.

"I don't do it all day, every day," he said. " I think anybody who's worked in jobs like these where things come at you all the time develop the ability to do multiple tasks."

With the jobs he's held, multi-tasking at his level can certainly come in handy.

Wilson, 47 (he turns 48 Saturday), is considered to be within Gov. Jay Nixon's closest circle of four or five staff members. During much of Nixon's 12-year tenure as state attorney general, Wilson led teams of lawyers and handled multiyear, multimillion-dollar cases s chief assistant attorney general.

Now, as the director of Nixon's Transform Missouri Project, Wilson is responsible for Missouri's $4.4 billion in federal stimulus money and oversees the staff that works to acquire more money and track incoming funds.

"We have to make sure that those we distribute the money to are using it the right way and that they will be reporting the information that we will be reporting to Washington," he said. "All in all, lots of good people (are) working on it. No one person could do it in Missouri or in any other state."

But the fact that Wilson frequently credits others can't mask the high regard he's earned in his own right. Call most any law firm in central Missouri, and anyone who recognizes the name will usually produce a glowing report.

And the praise comes from both sides of the aislespectrum.

"He's very well-respected because he's very smart and very honest," said Jefferson City attorney Harvey Tettlebaum, a former state GOP treasurer who was named "Republican of the Year" in 2004 by the Missouri Association of Republicans. "He has a very good reputation for integrity. He's someone whose word is good."

Columbia attorney Craig Van Matre, who donated to Democrat Judy Baker's 2008 campaign for Congress, has not been in touch with Wilson for three years. But after working with him to develop the Missouri Foundation for Health out of the liquidation of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Missouri, Van Matre had nothing but good things to say.

"He is not going to be a person you have to worry about somebody buying off," Van Matre said. "You don't have to worry about him doing the wrong thing."

And that reputation is fortunate for Nixon. Wilson was the leading lawyer in many high-profile cases during Nixon's record four consecutive terms as state attorney general.

Wilson has argued numerous times before the Missouri Supreme Court. He suspended his own smoking when Nixon assigned him to a tobacco litigation case that lasted five years and resulted in the biggest settlement in state history.

Wilson regards his involvement in the health foundation and arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court as highlights in his career.

But before all that, he pursued a vastly different career — theater and performing arts.

He graduated from Drury University in Springfield where he majored as an undergraduate in theater. He then took acting classes at New York University and performed on stage in New York City for several years.

After leaving the stage, Wilson worked with computers and the hotel industry in New York City, Dallas and Chicago.

When he returned to Missouri, he ventured into law and received his law degree from MU in 1992.

Next on Wilson's resume was a one-year stint with former state Supreme Court Judge Chip Robertson.

Robertson, a Republican and former chief of staff to Gov. John Ashcroft, was the youngest judge ever appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court. He later became the youngest chief judge of a state Supreme Court in the nation, and he hired Wilson right out of law school.

"He was first in his class and had been exceedingly successful as a law student," Robertson said. "He had all the skills a judge would hope to have in a law clerk."

After working for Robertson for one year, Wilson clerked for the U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the sixth circuit. He then went to New York City to join a private law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell. Located in New York City's financial district, the firm primarily handles litigation, banking and real estate.

In the mid-1990s, Wilson's older brother, Marshall, introduced him to Nixon. And in 1996, Wilson returned to Missouri for the second time; this time he would work for the attorney general.

Armed with experience in litigation and financial transactions, Wilson said he gained even more traction from the cases he encountered once he was back in the public sector in Missouri.

So when Nixon asked him to stay on board and work with the budget during the postelection transition period and then with the federal stimulus package, Wilson said yes.

Now Wilson fields calls from the White House and, according to several staffers in Nixon's administration, works from six or seven different offices. But whichever office he chooses to work from, Wilson seems to thrive on his ability to juggle tasks.

"He's where I think the governor thinks he's most valuable right now," Van Matre said.

Robertson and Budget Director Linda Luebbering said Wilson is able to see straight to the point on complicated matters.

"I think he can look at a variety of issues and quickly understand them, both from a high-level policy perspective as well as a legal perspective," Luebbering said. "It's just that ability to look at complex issues and quickly understand and provide good advice."

Robertson said Wilson can "cut around the nonsense that often accompanies the issues relating to federal money, and I'm sure the governor trusts him, and he has every right and reason to trust him."

Although they say they don't doubt Wilson's qualifications, several lawyers said they were surprised Wilson took his current position in the administration.

"I'm not surprised Jay appointed him," Tettlebaum said. "But just knowing Paul as long as I have, I'm a little surprised he took the job. ... He was a hands-on practicing attorney, handling very complex and difficult cases for the state. And this is a different career path."

Van Matre said Wilson is "not a stranger to complex and complicated financial cases." But Van Matre said he was surprised Wilson is not a judge yet.

"You just typically don't have people with that breadth of legal experience who are in public service," Van Matre said. "Because of that experience, they can command top salaries and big law firms in the city, and that's where they go."

"But obviously, Jay's persuaded him to stay on," Van Matre said. "I think he could have — maybe some day will be appointed to a judgeship somewhere. But he's very much committed to public service. He could have left a long time ago and gone to work for a law firm and made a lot of money."

Tettlebaum attributed Wilson's commitment to public service to his upbringing. Wilson's father was an associate circuit judge in Cole County, and his mother went from being a school nurse to the director of maternity, family and child health in the state Health Department.

Both Wilson and his brother were active in their church when they were young, and both became Eagle Scouts.

Marshall Wilson credits their father as well as Wilson's own interest in the impact of law.

"Paul is very smart and likes to know everything that is going on," Marshall Wilson said. "And the older you get, the more you read the newspapers. And you realize that current events are shaped in courtrooms or at least by people who know and make and enforce the laws.

"And of course, the influence of our father was huge, I think, in shaping Paul's desire to study law and to become a member of the Bar."

What attracted him to the law was his father's work, Wilson said, but what attracted him to public service were the opportunities to make a difference.

"There's more to practicing law than trying to earn the most money you can earn," Wilson said. "Working in the public sector, working in government is exciting. It's challenging. You work for the right people, you get the chance to do really important stuff that make a difference for people.

"When I worked in New York, I would work with people who made many, many, many millions a year being a lawyer," he said. "And if you had talked to them about their careers, they would always talk about the one or two or three years that they spent in a prosecutor's office or an attorney general's office — you know, their favorite times were always the times spent in public service."

One of the pitfalls of working in state government is job security, which is only as certain as the next election outcome. But Wilson said he isn't looking ahead to the next election cycle or any other point in time where he may no longer work with Nixon.

Nor did he necessarily plot his future when Nixon made the transition from attorney general's office to the governor's office.

"I never had a discussion with the governor before the election about what would happen after the election," Wilson said. "You take the best opportunity as it's facing you at the moment. It's just been my good fortune that that's been the opportunities that Attorney General Nixon and now Gov. Nixon have offered me for the last 13 years."

For now, Wilson said he is concentrating on the task at hand as he directs Nixon's federal stimulus policy. But eventually, he would like to sit on a judicial bench.

"Anybody with a commitment to the law — not the academic side, but what we call the jurisprudential side — anyone that has a real love for that, I think, would always love to be a judge," Wilson said. "But I take these things one opportunity at a time."


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Comments

Jeri Sprenkles May 21, 2009 | 8:57 a.m.

Gee, Chris. Are you a beneficiary in Wilson's will or something? Are you his nephew? Perhaps you've forgotten that part of being a reporter is investigating and reporting, not just interviewing your subject's friends and regurgitating their praise.

Why not go back and ask Wilson how he managed to take 18-36 months of PAID leave from 2004 to 2006 while he was at the Attorney General's Office? Other employees were never accorded that same consideration. I guess that would require some actual journalism skills.

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