JEFFERSON CITY — What do the Democratic executive of St. Louis County, the Republican leader of the state House of Representatives and a ballot measure to limit earnings taxes have in common?
Their campaigns all are bankrolled, in part, by retired St. Louis businessman Rex Sinquefield. And the efforts to re-elect St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, to send state Rep. Steven Tilley back to the House and to pass Proposition A are just three of the nearly four dozen campaigns to which Sinquefield has donated in the past two years.
Rex Sinquefield has donated more than $10.7 million to Let Voters Decide, the group pushing Proposition A. He's contributed more to that cause than any other in the past two years. Here are the next five:
- Missouri Club for Growth Political Action Committee, $375,000 (R).
- Steven Tilley, $200,000, House majority leader (R).
- House Republican Campaign Committee, $132,588.42 (R).
- Charles Dooley, $130,010, St. Louis County executive (D).
- Francis Slay, $125,000, mayor of St. Louis (D).
The donations, which total more than $13.3 million, are the result of Sinquefield's personal wealth, his ideological passions and Missouri's lax campaign finance laws, experts and politicians say.
Missouri is one of six states that place no limit on campaign contributions from individuals, corporations or political action committees, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
One expert compared Missouri to a Caribbean territory notorious for money laundering and tax evasion.
"It's like the grand Cayman Islands," said Elizabeth Bartz, the CEO and president of an organization that provides consulting services to organizations interested in making contributions on a state level.
Missouri voters approved contribution limits in a 1994 referendum, but lawmakers repealed the limits in 2006. In mid-2007, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the repeal, reinstating the limits. The legislature responded by repealing the limits again in July 2008.
As part of the repeal, lawmakers also imposed restrictions on committee-to-committee transfers in an effort to assure transparency.
In repealing the limits, lawmakers argued that there were easy ways to get around the limits. Repeal would make campaign funding sources more transparent, they said, because there would be no reason to use "middle-man" organizations.
Some pointed to Sinquefield's formation of about 100 different organizations to channel money to the campaign of Chris Koster for attorney general in 2008, when campaign limits were in effect.
Since repeal, Sinquefield has donated freely, and at least one beneficiary of his money believes his influence is too great.
State Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, points to the $10.7 million Sinquefield has dropped into the campaign to pass Proposition A as evidence of a flawed system. Proposition A would require that St. Louis and Kansas City allow voters to determine whether to retain their earnings taxes, and it would prohibit any other city from imposing earnings taxes in the future.
"I think (Sinquefield) is dead wrong on the earnings tax. The effort is to buy the public policy," Kelly said. "There was no public groundswell for this measure. The only reason this is an issue is because Rex wants to buy this public policy. I don't think anyone should be allowed to buy public policy."
Kelly readily acknowledged that "(Sinquefield has) donated very significantly to my campaign," most recently with a $5,001 donation in January 2010.
Kelly is a longtime proponent of campaign finance changes, leading an effort in the 1980s to strengthen disclosure requirements.
"The money poisons the political environment, and I think the secrecy is a cancer on the body politic," Kelly said.
Marc Ellinger, spokesman for the pro-Proposition A group Let Voters Decide, downplayed Sinquefield's influence.
"He's been a very generous contributor, but 210,000 voters across the state of Missouri signed petitions, put their names out in the public domain, to say, 'We want to vote on this,' " Ellinger said. "Voters ultimately get to decide what they want to do on this matter. As much as anyone puts into an election, the voters get to decide."
Sinquefield has refused requests for interviews about Proposition A or his personal financing of the measure.
Politicians say the money has no impact on their decision-making.
"We consider (Sinquefield) to be one of our greatest campaign assets," said Katy Jamboretz, press secretary for Dooley's campaign for St. Louis County executive. "That being said, there's no correlation between who we get money from and how decisions are made. Absolutely none."
Jamboretz noted that Dooley is on record as opposing Proposition A.
Sinquefield has spread his money in a targeted manner. In the past two years, he has favored Republican committees nearly 3-to-1.
Of the 44 separate campaign committees to which he's given, 32 are Republican and 11 are Democratic. (The non-partisan Let Voters Decide is the 44th.)
Sinquefield has also given generously to legislative leaders. Tilley, the House majority leader, has accepted $200,000 of Sinquefield's money in the past two years.
It could be money well spent. Next year, Tilley, R-Perryville, is expected to become House speaker. He said Sinquefield should be allowed to spend as much as he wants.
"It's a freedom of speech issue. He believes in an issue, and he supports it," said Tilley, referring to Sinquefield's investment in the "Yes" on Proposition A campaign.
Tilley opposes contribution limits, saying they decrease transparency by encouraging opaque independent expenditures.
"They've got limits on the federal level. Have you noticed all the independent expenditures, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, behind the negative ads?" Tilley asked. "Nobody's accountable to that."
As majority leader, Tilley this year helped shepherd ethics rules that granted greater investigatory powers to the Missouri Ethics Commission and curtailed the ability of contributors to hide donations by funneling money through various political action committees. He regards Missouri's disclosure requirements — including a requirement that any donation over $5,000 be reported within 48 hours — as strong.
Bartz, whose group educates interest groups about state campaign finance laws, agreed.
"It's not like they can just give and give and give and nobody can find out," Bartz said. "It is public information, and it is information you can find out."
Sinquefield has made a point of making contributions of exactly $5,001 to trigger the accelerated reporting requirement.
But Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Independence, the Senate Democratic leader, said the rules don't go far enough.
"In our political history, there's always been large groups that have attempted to affect public policy," Callahan said. "That's why you should go back to limits where you can limit the ability of those interests to do that."
Sinquefield has long been interested in eliminating Missouri's income tax, and he's taken an interest in the political fortunes of legislators in position to make that happen.
In the past two years, he's given $26,502 to members of House and Senate committees with influence over tax policy. And even contribution-limit boosters such as Callahan, who got $5,001 from Sinquefield last November, admit it's tough to operate outside the money-dominated political system.
"Politics is a competitive endeavor, and I'm not going to sit there and impose some limit on myself," Callahan said. "I'm going to advocate for (limits) to become law, but if there are no limits, I'm not going to sit there and say, 'Contribute $100 to me, but let the majority party collect $50,000.' "
Asked whether she could recall a situation where one person has given so much money to so many campaigns in so little time, Bartz, the 34-year veteran of the campaign finance industry, was stumped.
"I have to admit that off the top of my head, I really can't."