JEFFERSON CITY — While not admitting an ethics problem exists within the Missouri legislature, two House members filed a bipartisan bill aimed at strengthening current ethics laws.
Reps. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, and Jason Kander, D-Jackson County, pre-filed legislation Monday that would make it a crime to obstruct ethics investigations as well as launder money through political action committees. Although the bill was filed following a number of criminal and ethical violations by some current and former members of the legislature, neither representative was willing to say the body as a whole has ethics problems.
"The problem is perception," Flook said. "Any of those incidents can be written about in the press. They can be discussed at the kitchen table or at the coffee shops, and it casts doubt on what we're all trying to do down here."
In a recent Kansas City Star column, former Rep. Brian Yates, R-Jackson County, said that while he said he has no proof, he is convinced that vote swapping for campaign contributions has occurred. Yates resigned his seat Dec.1 to work for QC Holdings, a Kansas City payday lender.
This bill would clarify existing "pay-to-play" laws, according to a news release accompanying the filing.
Under Kander and Flook's bill, obstructing an ethics investigation would be a felony, an option currently available to federal investigators, Kander said. He added that speculating on what federal investigators are going to do is the "Jefferson City sport of choice" and said that by giving the state the ability to prosecute the "small bipartisan minority who break the rules," it can pre-empt federal investigators from even getting involved.
Another provision of the bill would require all political action committees to file disclosure reports electronically that would be available for online searches.
Flook said the bill would also decrease the number of what he called "intramural committees," or fundraising committees within larger political action committees, that Flook said can be used to hide the original source of money. Under the bill, it would be a felony to use these smaller committees to hide the original source of contributions.
Two other ethics bills have already been filed in advance of next year's legislative session. One sponsored by House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Jackson County, would re-establish campaign contribution limits approved by Missouri voters in 1994 by an overwhelming margin. The legislature voted in 2008 to repeal the limits.
Another bill sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, would ban contributions to legislators and the governor during a legislative session, create an independent ethics investigator and expand the definition of a lobbyist.
The Kander and Flook bill also would change who would be considered a lobbyist, creating the title of "de facto lobbyist" for consultants who are not currently covered by state lobbying disclosure laws requiring them to register.
Both Kander and Flook said the key to their bill is its bipartisan nature.
"The best policy comes with people working together," Flook said.
"We're trying to create a bipartisan solution to a bipartisan problem," Kander added.
Both House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, and LeVota have expressed support for the bill, Flook said. House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, may request some changes to the bill, and the bill may be combined with other ethics bills, Flook said.