JEFFERSON CITY — According to an audit released Monday by the state auditor's office, state legislators solicited lobbyist donations for expenses ranging from meals to Christmas parties and gift cards for their staff.
"We do have significant concerns over potential conflict of interest when they are soliciting funds on behalf of the Senate as a body from lobbyists who have interests in front of the Senate," Missouri State Auditor Susan Montee said. "It makes it very difficult to say no."
Lobbyist contributions to individual legislators and legislative groups has been standard practice in Missouri for decades. The audit found that both state representatives and senators solicited contributions from lobbyists, which the legislators then decides how to spend.
Other potential issues include:
- Almost $20,000 spent on lapel pins and charms for House members in 2009 — a $4,000 increase from 2007.
- A state House of Representatives policy of paying for out-of-state travel expenses for outgoing members after the legislative session ends.
- Representatives' employees are only required to work a 35 work week, whereas most other state employees are required to work 40 hours a week.
- House employees have annual leave benefits that are well above most other state employees.
Montee, a Democrat, said the Republican-controlled Senate set up a nongovernment bank account in 2003 for lobbyists funds. Since 2003, there has been more than $76,000 deposited into the account. Almost $61,000 has been withdrawn.
Montee said senators approached her office and initially asked whether a fund could be set up outside of the State Treasury. According to her, they were told no. After consulting with the Missouri Ethics Commission, the Senate determined that an account could, in fact, be created as long as lobbyists reported all donations.
Senate Administrator James Howerton, who oversees the fund, said it was created to feed workers and protect them from potential conflicts of interest.
"If we reach a point where we do know that we're not going to be able to let our people go for a meal, we have the funds here in place ...," Howerton said. "Unless somebody comes in and asks whose names are in the fund, nobody knows who paid for it; it's just another layer of protection from that charge of, 'is there possible influence going on here?'"
Howerton said the money should not be under the control of the state because it is not part of the taxpayers fund.
Still, Montee said, a state body should not collect money unless it is maintained by the state treasurer's office.
The question, she said, is: "Is it or is it not state money?"
According to Montee, if a state entity takes money on behalf of the state, then it is state money.
Montee said a similar problem exists in the House of Representatives. She said there are no deposit records or donation records for the House because representatives would ask lobbyists if they would be willing to purchase food and bring it to lawmakers.
In both chambers, lobbyists did not report most donations to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
The House response to the audit stated, "The House has neither the jurisdiction to enforce the (Missouri Ethics Commission) reporting requirements nor the legal obligation to notify lobbying entities regarding reportable events or reporting methods associated with lobbyist donations or gifts."
Howerton agreed, saying it is not up to senators to tell lobbyists when to report donations.
There is no law forcing the Legislature to inform lobbyists when they need to file reports, but Montee said the process should be more transparent.