Missouri lawmakers pose ethics changes

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by Chris Blank
Associated Press Writer

KMOV.com

Posted on January 3, 2010 at 3:58 PM

Updated Sunday, Jan 3 at 4:55 PM

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri lawmakers stung by the bad behavior of some colleagues are aggressively seeking changes to the state's political ethics rules -- proposing more than one ethics bill for each of the six people charged with a crime last year.

The ideas are almost as diverse as the criminal charges for drunken driving, obstructing justice, bribery, conspiracy and assault that have created an urgency in addressing ethics.

For their annual session that starts Wednesday, lawmakers have proposed to:

-- create a special investigator for the Missouri Ethics Commission to review questionable behaviors

-- limit how much people can donate to politicians' campaigns

-- overhaul how political action committees operate

-- require greater disclosure of the financial dealings by government employees and political consultants.

Many of the proposals also crack the whip against lobbyists, such as by barring them from giving politicians campaign donations when the Legislature is meeting or restricting them from paying for meals and other gifts. A few also take aim at the executive branch -- either restricting from whom or when the governor can take campaign donations or creating new rules on appointments.

Not to be outdone, Gov. Jay Nixon has suggested his own ideas.

The governor wants to create caps on how much can be donated to campaigns, ban lawmakers from working as lobbyists, bar legislators from hiring a colleague for political advice and prohibit the transfer of campaign donations among multiple political committees.

Those pushing for change point to ethical lapses -- both real and perceived. Over the last three years, more than a dozen lawmakers have been arrested, including one who was nabbed twice.

The highest profile cases have been the resignations of three St. Louis-area Democrats who pleaded guilty to federal felonies in 2009. The most recent example was a second-degree assault charge filed in southeast Missouri against former Republican House Speaker Rod Jetton, who has been paid more than $400,000 for political advice by various GOP lawmakers.

There also has been persistent discussion of a federal investigation into legislative actions. Several lawmakers have said the FBI has asked them about schemes in which committee assignments, perks or favors were received for campaign donations.

Against that context, ideas for changing the ethics rules in the Capitol have proliferated.

"Fighting public corruption is like fighting the flu," said state Rep. Jason Kander, D-Kansas City. "We come up with a vaccine and the flu comes back the next year with a new strain. So as the flu adapts, the vaccine must evolve with it."

Kander is co-sponsoring ethics legislation with Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, who said ethics have become a partisan tool used by campaigns to beat one another down. In the meantime, problems have arisen and the public has started to lose faith in state officials.

"Any of those incidents can be written about in the press, they can be discussed at the kitchen table or coffee shops and cast doubt on what we're all trying to do down here," Flook said.

Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler said he expects ethics legislation to be a priority during the 2010 session. But he's not sure of its ultimate impact.

"I'm firmly convinced that we care more about the appearance of ethics than actually being ethical," said Engler, R-Farmington. "That's pretty cynical, but its true."

Missouri's political ethics rules have been revised several times in recent years, but the debate generally has focused on whether there should be campaign contribution limits. Missouri's donation caps were permanently repealed in 2008 over strenuous objections from House Democrats, who again are seeking to reconstitute them.

"True ethics reform starts with campaign contribution limits," Nixon said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

But Republican legislative leaders remain reluctant to reinstate the limits.

House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, who was one of Jetton's political consulting clients, is sponsoring a bill would ban lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. The measure also would require legislators to wait 180 days before taking a gubernatorial appointment and bar governors from taking campaign donations from entities with business pending before executive branch agencies.

Tilley, R-Perryville, said the legal problems and Democratic resignations from 2009 prompted House Republicans to ask a former U.S. attorney to speak during a December caucus meeting to remind them of what can and cannot be done.

"It's made all of us evaluate how you do business," Tilley said.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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