WHAT OTHERS SAY: Dirty money loses in primary election; time to outlaw it

Monday, August 13, 2012 | 5:19 p.m. CDT

Dirty money lost big.

That's the lesson from the Aug. 7 primary election that should sink in with the victors.

Leading up to the election, there were a couple of egregiously unethical examples of money laundering in an attempt to buy favor with voters. In both cases, donors too cowardly to connect their money to their political views formed nonprofit organizations and put hundreds of thousands of dollars into their accounts. In turn, those nonprofits gave the dirty money to political action committees that then spent the cash on rolling-in-the-mud negative advertising prior to last Tuesday's race.

One scheme, involving the nonprofit Better Government for Missouri and the political action committee Missourians for Conservative Values, was entirely concocted to help Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, in his race for lieutenant governor.

Mr. Lager lost.

The other money shifters — Missourians for Low Energy Costs and Missourians Against Higher Utility Rates — played their secretive game in three state senate races. Those groups spent their dirty money on Republicans Scott Largent ($167,000) and Ward Franz ($113,000), and Democrat Jeanette Mott-Oxford ($63,000).

All three lost.

Voters won.

In each of these cases, unless the nonprofit that received the money eventually discloses its donors, voters will never know for sure who spent the money to try to influence their votes.

That's undemocratic, and it also probably violates the Missouri law that says it is illegal to try to hide the source of campaign spending. That law, however, is weak and unenforceable without additional ethics and transparency requirements that Missouri lawmakers have refused to put into law, leaving the state with the weakest ethics and campaign finance laws in the country.

Good for Republican primary voters for seeing through the illicit attempts to buy their votes.

There were other good examples of big money failures in last week's election, too.

Mr. Lager was funded primarily by the Big Three of Missouri Republican funders these days: the Humpreys family of Joplin, Rex Sinquefield of St. Louis and the Herzog family of St. Joseph. Those three deep-pocketed donors — who regularly write six-figure checks to overwhelm the competition — almost completely funded Mr. Lager's campaign.

Republican voters found that as distasteful as we did.

Mr. Sinquefield also played in the state Senate races, laundering about $170,000 to Rep. Mike McGhee, R-Odessa, through the Missouri Club for Growth PAC. Mr. McGhee lost, too.

Then there was Sarah Steelman, the Republican who got the bulk of her support through a super PAC set up to support her race for U.S. Senate. Who donated there? You've read the names before: Mr. Sinquefield and the Herzogs. Soon-to-be-ex-Speaker of the House Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, directed money to that PAC from his state leadership PAC. Columbia überdeveloper Jeffrey Smith, one of the kings of shell-game campaign finance, parked some cash there, too.

Even with the help of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a tea party favorite, Ms. Steelman finished last in her race.

Coming in second was St. Louis businessman John Brunner, who spent $7.5 million of his own money to win. At least Mr. Brunner didn't try to hide behind hidden layers.

Voters have had enough of this big money and obfuscation. That message came through loud and clear. The Republicans who vanquished the dirty money of big donors need to do something about it. Go to Jefferson City and finish the job started by a bipartisan coalition in 2010. Pass serious ethics reform. We would reimpose an updated version of the campaign finance limits that Missouri voters passed in 1994. But even short of that, surely the next legislature can react to the injustice of dirty money by passing laws requiring true transparency. It can be done. It must be done.

Voters deserve to know who is trying to buy their votes. Those voters gave lawmakers a mandate last week to fix the problem.

Get it done.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Michael Williams August 13, 2012 | 6:19 p.m.

Well, StL Post Dispatch:

Where the hell were you when the Roger Wilson scandal hit the fan?

I'm not sayin' you're wrong.

But I am saying you're selective.

(Report Comment)
frank christian August 13, 2012 | 8:07 p.m.

I don't think I would have bothered writing about "dirty" campaign money, having to relate that everyone I mentioned in the piece, for whom the money was spent, lost their election.

Do the voters know something not known by StL Post, editors? Yeah, I would bet on that!

(Report Comment)

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