JEFFERSON CITY — Republicans sued Monday to block a Missouri Ethics Commission action that could require the refund of millions of dollars of campaign contributions collected in excess of the state’s recently reimposed limits.
The lawsuit by the Missouri Republican Party and a southwest Missouri House member claims the Ethics Commission violated the state’s open meetings law last week when deciding how to implement a Supreme Court decision on the contributions.
Republicans are seeking a temporary restraining order preventing the Ethics Commission from carrying out its Sept. 11 decision to notify candidates they may have violated state law by receiving the donations.
Under the Ethics Commission decision, candidates must refund the money unless they can prove they relied on a now-stricken law allowing unlimited contributions, and that returning the money now would pose a hardship.
The Republican Party contends candidates should not have to refund large donations collected between Jan. 1 and July 19, when the Supreme Court struck down the law. Democrats have generally advocated for the ruling to be applied retroactively.
At stake is almost $4 million in contributions to Republican Gov. Matt Blunt and more than $1 million to his 2008 gubernatorial opponent, Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon.
An Associated Press analysis showed plenty of down-ballot candidates also would be affected. Of 167 candidates who already have created House campaign committees for the 2008 election, the AP identified 76 who would owe refunds of contributions that topped the retroactively reimposed limits.
The lawsuit claims the Ethics Commission’s violation letters must be stopped before hitting the mail or they could trigger a 10-business-day window for candidates to return contributions or face penalties. Otherwise, candidates could be forced to return money before the commission has decided whether to grant them a hardship exemption, the lawsuit claims.
An attorney for the Ethics Commission declined to comment about the lawsuit.
The six-member Ethics Commission met in secret for a little more than an hour Sept. 11, citing an exception to the Sunshine Law allowing closed meetings for discussions about legal actions and privileged communications between governmental bodies and their attorneys.
Commissioners then reconvened in a public session and, within a couple of minutes with no public discussion, unanimously passed a motion about how to implement the Supreme Court ruling on contribution limits.
Commissioner Robert Simpson, of Potosi, who read the prepared motion, told reporters commissioners had discussed in closed session what the motion would say and agreed that he would make it.
Chairman Warren Nieburg, of Camdenton, told reporters the day of the meeting that the commission did not believe it violated the Sunshine Law.
But the Republican lawsuit claims the Ethics Commission broke the Sunshine Law by discussing in closed session what its agenda specifically said would occur in open session. The lawsuit claims the commission also violated the law by discussing more than it was legally allowed to do in closed session.
“Conceivably, the commissioners may have consulted their attorneys about the meaning of the Supreme Court’s opinion or presented counsel with specific legal questions in closed session,” Republicans argue in a brief requesting the restraining order. “But they violated the law by holding their entire debate and deliberation in closed session.”
Besides the Missouri Republican State Committee, the other plaintiff is state Rep. Shane Schoeller, R-Willard. The AP analysis found at least two contributions Schoeller could have to refund as a result of the Ethics Commission action.
Schoeller said he sued not because of the potential for him to have to refund the donations, but because of the way the Ethics Commission made its decision.
“In my belief, the Missouri Ethics Commission, which is supposed to be the standard-bearer for ethics, chose not to be transparent in its decision-making process,” he said. “For me, it’s the principle that we need to be transparent in everything we do in government.”
Republican Party Executive Director Jared Craighead said the Ethics Commission “blatantly violated the Sunshine Law by meeting in secret,” thus denying public involvement in “a significant public policy decision that affects the lives of thousands of contributors and candidates.”
While not defending the way it made its decision, a Missouri Democratic Party spokesman praised the Ethics Commission’s decision to apply the Supreme Court ruling retroactively.
“We’ve long expected Matt Blunt and the Republican Party to go to any length to justify Governor Blunt’s attempts to keep his millions in special interest money,” said Democratic spokesman Jack Cardetti. “This will not be the last straw that they grasp at to avoid giving back this special interest money.”