Looking for a clue why the Missouri legislature won't even consider ethics legislation this year?
Look no further than the campaign finance reports of Speaker of the House Steve Tilley, a Republican from Perryville, who until last year had set his sights on higher office.
When Mr. Tilley announced last fall that he no longer was running for lieutenant governor, his Friends of Tilley campaign account was stocked with more than $1 million in cash, a testament to his ability to shake the political money tree.
So what did he plan to do with all that cash?
He bought a bank.
Actually, he only bought part of one. On Dec. 14 last year, long after he decided to back away from seeking higher office, Mr. Tilley's campaign account purchased $900,000 of shares in a privately held holding company in his hometown. The company, Reliable Community Bancshares Inc., owns The Bank of Missouri, which has branches all over the state. Two weeks later, Mr. Tilley's campaign opened a $200,000 Scottrade brokerage account.
The investments were first reported by the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Mr. Tilley told us that the investments were made properly in the name of the campaign. He otherwise declined to comment. We wonder, did he tell his donors he was going to play the market with their cash?
The moves are highly unusual, if not unprecedented, in Missouri politics. They raise all sorts of ethical questions about the potential for one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state to use his considerable legislative power to affect his own financial transactions with little public accounting.
The investments, however, appear to be legal.
And that's precisely why Missouri lawmakers should be debating ethics laws. Virtually nothing short of bribery — and it better be caught on tape — is illegal in Missouri politics. There are no limits on campaign donations, no limits on lobbyists' gifts and very few limitations on how a campaign can invest or spend its money.
Imagine this scenario, now that Mr. Tilley is both a day trader and bank owner. Keep in mind, the reason the speaker of the House can raise so much money is that he can exert life-or-death power over legislation. Let's say the annual bill to cap payday loan interest is filed, as it has been. Mr. Tilley could, as he has, stick the bill in his desk drawer, in effect killing it, and then fire up his Scottrade account and buy a little payday loan stock, knowing that business is good in the Show-Me State.
He could put his profits right back into his campaign account and then use the money in that account to continue to fund his lavish lifestyle — paying for travel, golf excursions and tickets to luxury suites at sporting events, which he does with campaign funds now.
Or he could suggest to his big donors that they might want to put some of their money in The Bank of Missouri. The deposits lift the share price. Mr. Tilley's campaign account cashes in with increased asset value, and there is no paper trail as to what happened, other than a quarterly filing that shows the investment increased or paid a dividend.
These examples are purely hypothetical. But they could happen, and lawmakers have little interest in doing anything about it. It is a core problem with Missouri's political system, which is breeding voter cynicism and distrust.
Nobody else in Missouri politics is playing this dangerous game. The state's top candidate committees tend to put their money in six-month certificates of deposit or money-market accounts, safe investments that won't bring much interest but also won't lose other people's money. The same is true of federal candidates, who follow much more stringent ethics rules.
Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has the largest individual campaign account in the state at about $5 million. He made $32.81 in interest in a money-market account last quarter.
Most campaigns don't even report the details of their investments because they're little more than checking accounts, but all must list any minor amounts of interest they receive.
In the entire state, there were 16 reports of investments in the January quarterly campaign reports on file at the Missouri Ethics Commission. Only Mr. Tilley has a brokerage account. Only Mr. Tilley owns part of a bank. Everybody else put their money in CDs and money markets.
There's no denying that Mr. Tilley is a savvy investor. Before he decided to double down on his investment strategy, he put some of his campaign money in the bond market. Last September, his campaign showed a gain of $10,737 from the sale of municipal bonds.
Mr. Tilley has discovered a scheme to raise money in bigger chunks than some elected officials ever will see without even having to post donors' names.
In so many ways, this is bad for Missouri. The good news is that at least some of Mr. Tilley's Republican colleagues know this.
At a Senate Republican caucus meeting last month, several Republicans discussed the possibility of filing a bill that would make illegal the sort of risky investment strategy Mr. Tilley has applied to campaign finances.
Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, calls it "crazy" that state law allows a campaign to invest in even a publicly traded company, let alone a privately held bank. He'd like to outlaw the practice.
But Mr. Tilley already has made it clear an ethics bill is going nowhere this year.
Is it any wonder why?
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.