Donor is behind effort to ease Missouri's sex-offender rules

Friday, September 6, 2013 | 3:40 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — As the politically connected owners of a multi-state tobacco store chain, Jon Rand and Sharie Keil have contributed thousands of dollars to Missouri politicians and even hired their own lobbyists. But the cause they are pushing right now has nothing to do with cigarettes.

The husband and wife are on a behind-the-scenes mission to pass legislation that would remove hundreds of people convicted of sex crimes as juveniles from the state's online listing of registered sex offenders. Their cause is intensely personal because their son is among those whose name, photo and address would come down from law enforcement websites.

Their persistent, methodical efforts have set up a political showdown that would have seemed implausible just a few years ago, when the Republican-led legislature was heaping new restrictions on sex offenders that barred them from coaching youth sports, coming near playgrounds and swimming pools or even passing out candy on Halloween.

"Certainly, I've used whatever access or influence that I've gotten," Rand, the president of Discount Smoke Shop Inc., said in a recent interview. He added: "Anybody on the registry is a target for people who like to hurt other people."

In May, the legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill that would strike juvenile offenders from public-notification websites and eventually allow their removal from the sex-offender lists compiled by police.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill earlier this summer, warning it could endanger the public by hiding the whereabouts of violent sex offenders. But the battle is not over. Missouri lawmakers are to convene Wednesday to consider overriding the veto.

The juvenile sex offender legislation originally passed the House 153-0 and the Senate 28-4. As recently as last month, House Speaker Tim Jones said the bill seemed "ripe for an override." But as Nixon has traveled the state defending his veto, some lawmakers began having second thoughts about their support for the bill and the potential ramifications of an override.

Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard said he's not pressing for an override and is no longer sure whether he would vote "yes."

"Are we going to be letting sex offenders out that may (result in) unintended consequences?" asked Richard, a Republican from Joplin and a former House speaker.

Richard has known Rand for several years, and he's aware of the family's personal interest in the bill. In the seven-week gap between the legislature's passage of the bill and Nixon's veto, Rand contributed $5,000 to Richard.

During that time, Rand or his tobacco businesses also gave $6,000 to House Majority Leader John Diehl, a Republican from the community of Town and Country, and $3,000 to Jones, a Republican from Eureka. Any additional contributions made after July 1 don't have to be publicly reported until Oct. 15.

Jones did not respond to a phone message about the bill.

Diehl, who noted that he's been getting contributions from Rand's tobacco companies for years, said he has never spoken to Rand or Keil about the sex offender bill and was unaware they had a son who would benefit from it. Diehl indicated he would probably vote to override the veto.

"I know there's been some concerns raised with it," Diehl said. But "I don't know why I would change my mind at this point."

Supporters of the measure contend the online registry provides poor guidance to the public because it includes people who committed violent rapes alongside those who had consensual sex as teenagers with partners who were several years younger.

Rand has long been a major political donor. During the past four years alone, Missouri legislative candidates received more than $100,000 from Rand, Keil and their businesses. During that same time, they contributed about $50,000 to Nixon, a Democrat.

Many of those contributions came as Rand campaigned against a 2012 ballot initiative to raise tobacco taxes.

Rand's lobbyist, Neal English, estimated that fewer than one-third of the lawmakers who got donations from Rand knew he also was backing changes to the state's sex offender registry.

At least initially, Keil said, she tried to talk to lawmakers herself about the need to revise sex-offender laws, but she seldom made it past receptionists. So they hired professional lobbyists. Missouri Ethics Commission records show Keil contributed $12,500 to Missouri Citizens for Reform in November 2010. A month later, the committee paid the same amount to the lobbying firm for which English works.

Soon, Keil and Rand were seeing progress. The House passed measures in both 2011 and 2012 that would have exempted some crimes from the registry requirements, but the bills died in the Senate.

The bill that passed this year would remove 858 of the 13,581 people currently listed on the Missouri State Highway Patrol's sex-offender website, the patrol said.

Keil and Rand's son pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse in Illinois for an incident that occurred in June 1998. He was age 17 at the time, and the girl was 12. They say their son, and others like him, deserve a shot at a normal life without the spotlight of a permanent listing on sex-offender websites.

"This bill doesn't affect punishment at all," Keil said. "What it affects is the ability for young people to get a second chance and have an opportunity to go to school and get jobs."

English, a former Senate staffer, said the legislation may be about a dozen House votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override. The prospects in the Senate are also in doubt. But the lobbying campaign continues, and the vote projections change daily.

"It's kind of a politically sensitive issue," English said. "We had to get the legislature comfortable with the fact that the website's broken, and the unintended consequences are outweighing the public benefit."


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Vicki Henry September 6, 2013 | 9:41 p.m.

(Page 2) This issue is not about the folks listed above it is about punitive punishment. Also, this issue had nothing to do with the SORTS facility in Farmington where the governor held one of his news conferences.

But, it is about the 10% Byrne Fund Grant money from the Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder that the state could lose which doesn't hold a candle to what is spent each year to maintain a public registry that folks like John Walsh, father of Adam Walsh, who was standing by President Bush's side when he signed the AWA into law in 2006 now say the registry is not being used as it was initially designed and he said we need to get rid of all but the violent repeat offenders and track them.

Then here are quotes from Patty Wetterling, mother of Jacob Wetterling, who helped get several laws passed regarding sexual offenses.....

One woman contacted Wetterling to share the story of her husband, a former alcohol abuser who had committed a sex crime when he was 19. He went to jail and afterward turned his life around, getting married and having two kids. The Adam Walsh Act retroactively forced him to register as a sex offender, ushering him into a deep depression. He could no longer sit with his own family at church or chaperone school field trips due to the law's provisions.

And….She kept coming back to the same nagging feeling: These men were not the same as the man who abducted Jacob. These were not serial child abusers who had no capacity to change, and in a terrible twist, their status as sex offenders might actually make children less safe instead of more. Clogging the registries with so many people who don't represent a real ongoing threat could make it harder to discern those who actually do. Moreover, by perpetuating the stranger-danger myth, the laws could be lulling parents into a false sense of security, blinding them to the much more likely threat of sexual abuse by family and friends. Wetterling started feeling that sex offender laws had simply gone too far.

And the best for last…….Wetterling is also focused on primary prevention — that is, stopping abuse from happening in the first place. It's a bitter irony that almost all our public funds are funneled into punishing known sex offenders and virtually none are aimed at preventing sexual abuse from happening in the first place. Waiting until a child is harmed, hoping to find out about it, and then reacting with vengeance might satisfy the public's bloodlust and win points for politicians, but it's not a strategy that actually protects kids.

Please focus on the problem and not the folks who live their son and family just as much as any legislator AND the governor.

(Report Comment)
Vicki Henry September 6, 2013 | 9:42 p.m.

(Page 1) Why does the Associated Press and Governor Nixon find it necessary to call out a family with the hopes of turning the public against them, subject them and their family to possible vigilante actions AND trying to ruin their business? They, like many of the more that 2,500,000 registrant family members across the United States whose loved one is required to register (along with another 750,000 men, women and children-young as 8 in some states) chose to delve into the research by the likes of Justice Policy Institute, Dr. Jill Levenson, Richard Tewksbury and other, talked to many professionals, attended seminars to learn first hand "the truth of the matter" then rolled up their sleeves and went to work to help not only their son but the others. Here is some of what they learned that regarding minors:
More than 80% reported having had sex by age 15. Thus, Children having sex by the age of 15 would be guilty of committing a sex offense. (JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE, P 21)

More than nine out of 10 times the arrest of a youth for a sex offense is a onetime event.(JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE,P 22)

These are just a couple of the many things learned AND SHARED with Missouri legislators. But, what you hear from the governor is "what about the victims?" Let's be clear on this topic, nobody is discarding a victim and the trauma surrounding their situation. But, what about the victims of those 95% of offenses which occur within the family and never get reported. Please don't say that doesn't happen because MANY professionals and some of your family members might tell you it does. What about those kids? What about the kids of registrants who are ridiculed, beaten up, have folks drive by when they are out playing and shout horrible things? What about the underage girls who have sex because it is expected of them? What if Missouri passed a law that any "consensual sexual relationship between two minors or a minor with someone over the age of consent must be reported or anyone aware and not reporting it to the police would be imprisoned. Think that is far-fetched? The private prison industry is working hard to classify more and more "offenses" as those requiring incarceration to keep their facilities at the required 90% full-bed rate.

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