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WHAT OTHERS SAY: Shell game reduces transparency in lobbyist gift giving

Tuesday, November 27, 2012 | 10:58 a.m. CST; updated 7:27 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Here’s some unsolicited advice for the 50 new legislators who will enter the Missouri House in January: When the lobbyist who represents other lobbyists suggests something might be illegal, don’t do it. On this, and on many other matters, disregard the example set by the speaker of the House.

Mike Reid, who numbers among his lobbying clients the Society of Governmental Consultants, suggested in a letter to many of his colleagues last summer that the practice of lawmakers using campaign funds to reimburse lobbyists for gifts might run afoul of the law.

“I believe this is not permitted under the law,” wrote Mr. Reid. Because he is a former compliance officer for the Missouri Ethics Commission, his opinion should carry some weight.

“If you do receive such a reimbursement, I suggest contacting the elected official and informing them you cannot accept this type of reimbursement. If an elected official wants to reimburse you for a lobbying expense, it should come from private funds.”

The devious practice was started by former House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, who resigned his seat this year to become a (wait for it) lobbyist.

Early in his tenure as speaker, Mr. Tilley piously announced that he would no longer accept lobbyists’ gifts. His solution was to continue taking the loot, but then repay lobbyists with campaign funds.

If it looks to you as if this ploy enables lawmakers to convert campaign money to personal use, you are not alone.

As as reporter Virginia Young outlined in detail in a story in Sunday’s Post-Dispatch, this practice actually makes it harder for voters to make sure their representatives’ hands are clean. It becomes very difficult to track the financial relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists trying to curry influence with them through the use of such goodies as free meals, golf outings and tickets to sporting events.

This difficulty is not a coincidence.

No lawmaker, including current Speaker of the House Tim Jones, R-Eureka, ever would publicly admit to being influenced by lobbyists’ largess. Missouri is one of the few states that has placed no limits whatsoever on lobbyists’ gifts. Lawmakers have beaten back attempts to impose limits, and the issue has never been placed directly before voters.

Mr. Jones, unfortunately, has picked up on the practice started by Mr. Tilley.

In the old days, voters could go to the Missouri Ethics Commission website and see that a corporation gave Mr. Jones and his wife tickets to the NCAA men’s basketball regionals, as AT&T did last March. In the new system devised by Mr. Tilley and followed by Mr. Jones, however, tracking the money is much more difficult.

Now, AT&T, or whatever corporation is seeking to influence the speaker, offers the gift. The speaker takes the gift. The speaker then pays the corporation for the gift using campaign money, much of which was donated by other lobbyists and corporations. The original gift-giver then files an amendment to ethics forms showing reimbursement for the gift.

Voila! The gift vanishes into thin air. Who paid for it? That’s no longer clear.

Missouri law might be murky enough that such financial transactions might be “legal.” An attorney advising Mr. Jones suggested that’s possible. After all, who knows what matter of urgent state business might be discussed on the 18th green? But Mr. Reid wisely suggests that lobbyists shouldn’t take that chance.

His advice wasn’t intended for lawmakers, but they should follow it anyway. Mr. Reid understands that when it comes to ethics compliance, cash is not fungible.

Taxpayer money can’t be used to buy fancy hotel stays that aren’t intended for campaign purposes, for instance. And campaign donations can’t be used purely to enhance a lawmaker’s lifestyle. The companies, professional organizations and nonprofits that pay lobbyists to influence legislation understand this. It’s why they track such expenses so carefully. Lawmakers should do the same thing.

In an ideal world, state lawmakers would pass a stronger ethics law that outlaws this low-rent practice. They would give the ethics commission the clout it needs to enforce existing laws, like the one that says campaign funds can’t be converted to personal use. They would cap or ban lobbyists’ gifts, putting Missouri in line with all of the states surrounding it.

But at the very least, they should demand better from their new speaker. If Mr. Jones is “not influenced” by lobbyists’ gifts, as he claims, why is he trying so hard to hide them?

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by The Associated Press.


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