Legislative committees hear proposals to change ethics laws

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 | 9:15 p.m. CST; updated 11:02 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 3, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — There is bipartisan support in both chambers of Missouri's General Assembly for at least some aspects of major change to the state's ethics laws.

Ethics has been a hot topic in Missouri politics this year, in part because of several ethics violations that landed legislators in legal trouble.

The legislature heard in committees on Tuesday four bills that would alter ethics law.

Ban lobbyist gifts

A bill from Rep. Rachel Bringer, a Democrat from Palmyra, would make Missouri the fourth state to ban legislators from receiving any gifts from registered lobbyists, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Campaign donation limits

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, said in his State of the State speech that he supports limits on campaign donations.

Another bill from Bringer would cap contributions for statewide office at $1,250 per person, half that for state Senate races, and a quarter for state House contests. Rep. Gary Dusenberg, R-Blue Springs, filed a similar bill with the caps set a bit higher.

Dusenberg's bill was called too relaxed, and some Democrats said Bringer's legislation would be too much of a change from the current system, which places no limits on lobbyist gifts. Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, said the wording was so strict it would prohibit every interaction between lobbyists and legislators.

"I know the intent, but somebody pointed out that the way this is written, a lobbyist couldn't even hand you a piece of paper," Wilson said. "I think whatever comes out of this bill will have to be reworded."

Ethics investigation obstruction

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, would make obstructing an ethics investigation a felony.

Co-sponsor Jason Kander, D-Kansas City, was the only speaker Tuesday to mention former Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, by name on Tuesday. Other officials referred to "the actions of a small few" as being the impetus for any ethics proposals.

Smith and former Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton, were convicted of felonies in federal court for lying to the FBI about their role in distributing fliers that attacked Russ Carnahan during Smith's race against him in the 2004 Democratic primary for Congress. Smith is currently serving a year-long prison term.

Kander said had they lied to state investigators instead of the FBI, it would not have been a crime.

"That is a loophole you can drive a truck through," Kander said. "Before this, we have created an incentive to lie to investigators, because it's not a serious crime to impede an ethics investigation."

Kander emphasized that he thinks ethics reform should be the primary focus of the state legislative session because it will have a domino effect on how all bills are influenced.

"I know this might seem like just another issue, but to me it is the issue for one reason," Kander said. "This affects how everything else is done in this body."

Wilson said the ethics committee would combine allthree House bills into one, to be introduced at a later date. He said he hoped to begin the process next week.

Yearly income reports for staffers and more power for an independent commission

The lone ethics bill heard in the Senate Rules Committee would establish an independent commission to file and investigate ethics complaints against officials.

The bill, filed by Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, also would require all General Assembly staff members to file yearly income reports like legislators and candidates do.

Shields said this provision, which was met with skepticism by the committee's Democrats, was necessary because Missouri limits legislators to serving just eight years in each house. As a result, some staff members who have been at the Capitol longer than any legislator.

"In the era of term limits, most people would argue that the ability to influence legislation rests not only on elected officials, but with the staff," Shields said after the hearing. "There are staffers who are more influential and familiar with lobbyists than some legislators."

The bill would create an independent commission that could file ethics complaints on its own, which seemed to get support from the two Democrats on the Senate committee. Sen. Tim Green, D-Spanish Lakes, said it would be a dramatic improvement over the current system, which requires an outside party to file a complaint before an investigation can begin.

"For years with the ethics commission, we had been given a false impression they were there to investigate," Green said. "All ethics has done is report and nothing else."

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