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Columbia Missourian

Bribery accusations, denials swirl in state General Assembly election

By Hilary Niles
October 5, 2012 | 9:11 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Nancy Copenhaver wants it all to go away. But the controversy surrounding the Democrat’s claim that she was offered money in March to leave the 47th District primary race against John Wright only seems to be picking up speed — and intrigue — the longer questions go unanswered.

A student at an MU-hosted candidate forum on Tuesday evening asked Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, to respond to a story that broke over the weekend on Mike Martin's website, the Columbia Heart Beat. Martin reported it was Still who had made the offer.

“It was to pay for my ENTIRE campaign if I would run in a different district,” Copenhaver said in the Heart Beat article, which reported that the capital letters were Copenhaver's emphasis. 

Still, who represents Missouri's 25th District in the House of Representatives, is running to unseat state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, for his 19th District seat. Still flatly denies she made any such offer to Copenhaver.

But Copenhaver on Friday told the Missourian that the Heart Beat report is accurate. She clarified that she had assumed Still was offering Wright’s money, because Still had her own race to run and is not independently wealthy to afford such an offer.

That's a slightly different take than one put forward by Mitch Richards, Wright’s Republican opponent in the general election. He raised the topic at a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters at Columbia Public Library on Thursday evening.

“Nancy told me that in fact it was not hers (Mary Still’s money). That it was his, Mr. Wright’s,” Richards said in his opening remarks.

Richards and Wright were seated next to each other in a panel with four other House candidates. Richards looked straight ahead at the roughly 100 people in the audience while making his opening statement. Wright, head tilted and jaw set, kept his eyes on Richards.

The conversation

Still acknowledged that she called Copenhaver in March to talk strategy and to suggest that the former state representative run this year in a different district. Copenhaver, a retired teacher from Moberly, was elected in 2000 to serve the 22nd House District. She lost the general election for the same seat in 2002 and 2004.

"I did have a conversation with (Copenhaver), and I think a lot of people did because we knew that John was going to be a very strong candidate,” Still said. “She was not aware of some of the factors ... and he was going to have a lot of support from the education community."

Still said she talked with Copenhaver to inquire whether she or Wright could run in a different district.

“Nancy said no, she was not going to do that," Still said. "I respected her decision. I never made an offer" to pay her off to move to a different district.

Copenhaver confirmed that she had been expecting support from the education community. While she felt she had it, she said Still’s assessment of Wright’s strong standing with that sector also proved accurate during the subsequent campaign.

Whether Copenhaver had conversations about switching districts with anyone other than Still remains unclear.

“I don’t remember that I did,” Copenhaver said, adding that one reason she didn't want to run in a different district is simply because she lives in the 47th. She declined to discuss any other rationale.

“It’s a different situation now than it was then,” Copenhaver said.

She said that she was offered financial support in exchange for switching districts only one time — by Still.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, has worked with Still in the General Assembly since 2008. 

"The conversation never came up in my presence," Kelly said. "Is it possible that someone misconstrued something from a conversation? Yes. Is it possible that Mary Still bribed anybody? Absolutely not." 

Copenhaver maintained there was no way she could have misconstrued a conversation about general campaign finance strategy to be a blatant offer to be paid to leave the 47th District primary race for another district.

The primary

Monetarily, Copenhaver faced an uphill battle in challenging Wright.

He had less than $1,000 on hand at the end of March, just days after the alleged offer was made, according to campaign finance reports to the Missouri Ethics Commission.

But the following quarter, his campaign grossed more than $72,000 in contributions. In July, Wright contributed at least $88,000 of his own money to his campaign, according to the website followthemoney.org. By the time he filed a campaign finance report eight days before the primary, which he won by 28 percentage points, Wright had brought in a total of nearly $170,000, including his own money. 

Copenhaver’s campaign grossed $31,800 overall, including at least $9,600 she put in herself.

Copenhaver declined to comment on the strength of Wright’s campaign. As for why he might have felt compelled to offer her money to leave the race, Copenhaver said she figured it would save him money to not have to run a primary.

“That’s kind of common sense,” she said. The less Wright would spend on a primary, the more he would have left for the general election.

The heat turning up

Copenhaver’s accusation has tightened the tenor of both the 47th District House race, which she lost the chance to vie for, and the 19th District Senate race, in which Still is challenging incumbent Schaefer.

At Tuesday’s forum at MU, Schaefer and Still each stood up from their chairs when it was their turn to speak. Schaefer responded to the student’s inquiry about the Heart Beat article after Still denied the charge.

“You can’t pay somebody to get out of a race,” he said. Still threw her head back and laughed at the suggestion she had.

“I’m a former prosecutor,” Schaefer added. “If you offer somebody a monetary benefit to get out of a race, it has criminal implications.”

Two nights later at the library forum, Wright responded to his opponent Richards' implication that Still had bribed Copenhaver on Wright's behalf.

“I’d like you to understand that if you'd like to accuse me or my campaign of any wrongdoing of any kind that I and we will be prepared to evaluate appropriate, prompt and legal action under Missouri libel law,” Wright said. “In the meantime, I can’t respond to rumor and innuendo on the Internet about conversations that I never had participation in.”

Richards sat back and appeared slightly flushed at the suggestion of legal action.

Should a campaign finance complaint be filed, the Missouri Ethics Commission would assess whether the issue falls under its jurisdiction, according to procedures that are explained on its website. The commission can refer civil or criminal matters to appropriate authorities and dismiss any complaint it deems "frivolous." 

But at this point in the campaign, state law prevents the commission from investigating allegations of candidate misconduct, other than failure to file personal financial disclosure statements or campaign finance disclosure reports. The commission is prohibited from accepting any other complaints within 60 days before an election.

Wishing for resolution

Copenhaver noted on Friday that she did not voluntarily come forward with information about Still's phone call. Rather, she said, she simply responded to questions submitted by Martin.

She said digging into the issue further serves no purpose and distracts from the policy issues at stake in the election. She hopes the campaign for the 47th District can move forward from here.

"All I’ve done is verify what’s already out there," Copenhaver said in explaining her conversation with the Missourian. "I don’t know how much more clear I can make it that I don’t want to say anything on this issue."

Supervising is Scott Swafford.