WHAT OTHERS SAY: New House speaker needs to open his eyes to corruption

Monday, September 17, 2012 | 2:57 p.m. CDT

Tim Jones says Missourians will see his kinder, gentler side now that he's taken over as the speaker of the Missouri House.

The Eureka Republican, fiery and combative in his three terms in the House, told the Post-Dispatch's Virginia Young last week that as speaker, he won't be quite the political demolition expert that he was last year as majority floor leader.

OK, we'll bite.

Admittedly, Mr. Jones hasn't been a favorite here, mostly because of his anti-gay, anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-voter, anti-reason policy positions and his full embrace of the culture of corruption in Jefferson City. If a lobbyist is offering tickets to sporting events or picking up greens fees, the man we dubbed "Timmy Tickets" is first in line.

But it could serve the St. Louis region well to have a speaker of the House from our community. There hasn't been one since Republican Catherine Hanaway of Warson Woods in 2003-04. If Mr. Jones finds a way to work with the rest of the St. Louis delegation, Republicans and Democrats, to promote policies that benefit the region, then we wish him well. His success could be good for St. Louis.

As he starts his new job, however, we offer this advice: Shoot straight.

Before he was elected speaker during Tuesday's veto session, Mr. Jones told Ms. Young: "I don't see this culture of corruption in Jefferson City. There's too many eyes, ears and camera phones to do anything wrong anymore."

There are really only two ways to look at that statement, and neither of them is good.

Either Mr. Jones really doesn't see the corruption around him (in which case we're here to help), or he's changed his mind on what is and isn't corrupt since 2010.

That was the year the Missouri legislature passed Senate Bill 844, an ethics bill meant to address the "culture of corruption" in the capital city that Mr. Jones now says doesn't exist, apparently because of the sudden presence of so many iPhones.

Mr. Jones handled that ethics bill in the House, which would suggest that he supported its goals. That bill did a bunch of good things to address corruption. It created the state crimes of bribing a public official and interfering with an ethics investigation. It required gubernatorial appointees to publicly disclose their campaign contributions. It limited the ability of big donors to shift money between various campaign committees, thus hiding its true source. It created a new crime for lobbyists who file false expenditure reports. It gave the Missouri Ethics Commission expanded powers to conduct investigations.

That law passed, with Mr. Jones' support. It's no longer on the books, however, because the Missouri Supreme Court found one provision unconstitutional.

Any fair analysis of the corruption culture of Jefferson City would suggest things have become worse since 2010. Money, naturally, is the biggest culprit.

Missouri is the only state in the nation to have no limits on either lobbyists' gifts or campaign donations. Lobbyists start with breakfast and lunch, advance to steak and wine, and for the big players, offer tickets to sporting events, exclusive golf resorts and fancy hotels.

Like his mentor and predecessor, Steve Tilley, Mr. Jones has adopted the practice of reimbursing lobbyists for gifts using his campaign funds. That might be even worse than accepting the gifts outright.

In 2010, when Timmy Tickets got his nickname, the public could find out who paid for Mr. Jones to play golf at Torrey Pines in San Diego; it was lobbyists for AT&T.

But today, although the public can find out which lobbyist invites him to various Cardinals and Blues games and expensive dinners, it's impossible to know who really pays for it. Mr. Jones often takes money given by lobbyists and campaign contributors and uses it to pay for the tickets he gets from other lobbyists.

It's easy to take money from one pocket to pay for gifts in the other pocket when donors are writing six-figure checks to campaigns.

There's a reason why donors write those checks and lobbyists are generous with their gifts. It's to influence legislation.

In Missouri, unlike many other states, it's all completely legal. But that doesn't mean it's not corrupt.

It's possible, of course, that Mr. Jones doesn't see those transactions as corruption. After all, when other members of his party criticized Mr. Jones' chief of staff for running a political consulting firm while employed by the state, Mr. Jones said he saw nothing wrong with it.

The great thing about the 2010 ethics bill that Mr. Jones helped pass is that it addressed the culture of corruption in a bipartisan way. The genesis of the bill was actually the guilty pleas in federal court of three St. Louis Democrats. Mr. Jones was happy to open his eyes to corruption then.

Now he's in power and he is turning away.

There are plenty of members of Mr. Jones' party — including gubernatorial candidate Dave Spence — who see the corruption and want to fix it. But they can't get an ethics bill, even one like the 2010 bill Mr. Jones handled, through the legislature without his help.

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

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