To compare Roger Wilson to Rod Blagojevich simply because both were Democratic governors indicted by the federal government on corruption charges would be to ignore the record.
Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor, was a likeable, albeit unethical, egomaniac who, among other things, tried to auction a U.S. Senate seat and extort campaign money from a children's hospital. He's now serving a 14-year sentence.
Mr. Wilson, who was Missouri's lieutenant governor when Gov. Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash in 2000, served as governor for only 83 days. Affable and low key, his involvement in an alleged scheme in 2009 to transfer about $8,000 from the state-chartered insurance company Missouri Employers Mutual Co. to the Missouri Democratic Party seems out of character.
Mr. Wilson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor Thursday. He probably will get a slap on the wrist and serve probation. His biggest punishment will be the stain on his reputation.
Still, when a state's ex-governor is indicted, there is no hiding the shame it brings to the entire political system. That's why the path followed by campaign money — particularly the path of that first $5,000 check, as it bounced between the St. Louis law firm Herzog Crebs, an insurance company, and the Democratic Party in August 2009 — is worth careful inspection.
Gov. Jay Nixon, the titular head of the Democratic Party, denied through a spokesman that he knew anything about the money-laundering scheme. That, however, will not end questions about who else in the party might have been involved.
The bigger problem is that a lot of money laundering goes on in Missouri politics, much of it legal. But that doesn't make it right.
In the 2008 election, for instance, Missouri politicians were dealing with a changing set of campaign finance rules. That year, lawmakers passed a bill getting rid of the campaign finance limits that had been set by voters in 1994. For much of the year, lawmakers had to abide by contribution limits. After the August primary, they didn't.
Big donors skirted limits by funneling money through various campaign committees that, by law, could accept and give in much larger amounts than individuals could. Some candidates, such as current Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, set up shell committees to funnel certain donations.
In July and August of 2008, GOP gubernatorial candidate Sarah Steelman received $134,400 in donations from 10 party committees. It is virtually impossible to know the original source of any of that money. Similarly, Republican Kenny Hulshof, who lost to Mr. Nixon in the general election, received more than $400,000 in passed-through money from legislative committees in August 2008.
In 2010, lawmakers made it illegal to launder money through political action committees. But that law was invalidated by the Missouri Supreme Court for other problems, so money laundering in Missouri politics is legal again.
Now, Missouri has no campaign finance limits; the only check is that the source of the money must be disclosed. The committee laundromat enables some donors to evade disclosure.
Missouri lawmakers could and should do something about this.
What are they waiting for? More indictments?
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.