Missouri senator testifies before grand jury about pay-to-play

Tuesday, February 2, 2010 | 9:25 p.m. CST; updated 8:47 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 3, 2010

KANSAS CITY — A state senator testified before a federal grand jury Tuesday about his anti-porn bill, which was effectively killed by the Missouri House speaker in 2005.

The focus of the FBI investigation, which has reportedly been developing over the past year, is how a 2005 bill died in the House.

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said in an interview after the testimony that he spoke to the grand jury about "the troubling circumstances" that led to the defeat of the legislation in 2005. Bartle declined to say what he was asked.

He did say, however, that he thought a $35,000 donation to the then-House speaker was at the center of the inquiry and had something to do with the bill never reaching the House floor.

"I think there's a link between that money and my bill dying," Bartle said. "The appearance is absolutely horrid."

Ethics have been a hot topic in Jefferson City this year. On top of these allegations of pay-to-play, a handful of legislators have been convicted of some form of corruption. The General Assembly is considering several ethics reform proposals.

House speakers have wide discretion in assigning bills to House committees. The committees hear and then pass — or don't pass — the bill on to a full House vote.

Then-House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, in 2005 assigned Bartle's bill to what he called an "unfriendly committee," the Local Government Committee.

Around that time, a campaign committee run by House General Counsel Don Lograsso received a $35,000 donation from the adult entertainment industry.

Lograsso was put on an unpaid leave of absence last week about the same time reports were published that the federal inquiry was focusing on the fate of the porn shop bill.

That bill had passed the state Senate 23 to 7 but never made it out of the GOP-controlled House after being referred to the committee, which was chaired by Rep. Bob Johnson, R-Lee's Summit.

Johnson had said before the bill passed the Senate that he had reservations about it. Bartle said he had hoped it would be referred to a friendlier committee.

Bartle said assigning it to Johnson's committee was not a coincidence, and the bill would have had wide support if it had gotten to the House floor.

"Passing this bill should have been a no-brainer in the House," Bartle said, noting the chamber was, and still is, controlled by Republicans. "There's no good reason why a Republican in the House of Representatives would be against this."

Bartle said he first heard that the FBI was doing a pay-for-play investigation "three or four years ago," and he received a subpoena in the middle of last month.

The legislation that passed the Senate would have required admission fees and use taxes on adult businesses. It would also have banned full nudity in strip clubs and made them close by 10 p.m. Finally, the bill would have banned tipping the semi-nude dancers and would have required them to be at least 10 feet apart at all times.

Some of its provisions were put on another bill and passed, but they were ruled unconstitutional because the amendment was attached to an unrelated bill.

Jetton has denied any wrongdoing, and Bartle declined to say who was the focus of the grand jury investigation. But Johnson previously told The Kansas City Star that Jetton is at the center of the investigation.

"No question there's interest in Rod Jetton," Johnson said last month. "That's all they wanted to talk about."

Jetton was charged in December with second-degree assault. Prosecutors say he assaulted a woman during sex.

When Bartle was asked whether he is a subject of the investigation, he said, "most certainly not."

The grand jury is expected to reconvene Wednesday.

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