Some say watchdog over corrupt Missouri politicians is powerless

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by Craig Cheatham / News 4 and Dan Greenwald / KMOV.com

KMOV.com

Posted on May 13, 2014 at 5:56 PM

Updated Wednesday, May 14 at 6:03 AM

(KMOV.com) – Many critics are saying Missouri’s body that punishes corrupt politicians is not doing its job.

Many point to the example of former state representative TD El Amin, who was fined $500,000 by the Missouri Ethics Commission for campaign violations. The commission determined El Amin failed to report certain contributions and expenses. It also concluded he gave his wife and other relatives tens of thousands of dollars and did not report that he spent thousands on luxury hotel visits. Amin denies he has done anything wrong and said an accounting error is to blame.

James Klahr, who sits on the commission told News 4 Amin has yet to pay even a portion of the fine. El-Amin’s fine was handed down after he was convicted of soliciting a bribe, and he was sent to federal prison.

“I think if people look at the issue of fines alone, I would be willing to concede it has been ineffective,” Klahr said.

News 4 has learned the commission will often issue a headline grabbing fine, but then settle the case for a smaller amount.

A recent example is St. Louis Alderwoman Kacie Starr-Triplett used campaign money at fancy restaurants and martini bars. She also spent thousands on a mortgage and a school loan. The commission determined she misused anywhere from $8,000 to $18,900.  She later settled her case with the commission for $10,000 which only 10 percent of the fine that was levied against her.

An expert told News 4 the problem is not unique to any one place.

“This is not a problem that is unique to Missouri, you see this all over the country,” Tracy Western with the Center from Government Studies said.

Western said the commission is facing a risk because it there is a perception it is unfair and chooses to be tougher on some politicians but not on others. In recent years, many of the heaviest fines have been levied against African American Democrats from the St. Louis area.

“It’s very important for an ethics commission to act ethically and create the appearance of even handedness in its judgments,” Western said.

El-Amin said he was judged to harshly by an all-white panel of commissioners. Klahr told News 4 he has never heard an allegation that the commission is biased on the basis of race.

Klahr said the commission is suing El-Amin in an effort to collect the money it says El-Amin owes the state. However, Klahr said the commission has limited options when it comes to punishing politicians such as El-Amin.

News 4 attempted to contact El-Amin and Starr-Triplett, but both declined to be interviewed.

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