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Missouri House speaker’s side business raises ethical issues

Updated: 2013-09-07T04:08:31Z

By JASON HANCOCK

The Star’s Jefferson City correspondent

— At his day job, Tim Jones is an attorney for a St. Louis law firm. He draws another, modest salary as a state legislator. But in some recent years, the speaker of the Missouri House also earned money through something called the Missouri Freedom Alliance.

So what is the Missouri Freedom Alliance?

And does it have more to do with Jones the lawyer, or Jones the lawmaker?

The speaker says the company is about his legal business. But state disclosure documents don’t reveal whether that might overlap with his job as House speaker.

When first asked about the limited liability corporation — which he founded his first year in the legislature — the state’s most powerful lawmaker said in two separate phone conversations that he made a small amount of money over the years doing legal consulting on the legislative process.

“I provide basic, rudimentary, Legislature 101 advice,” Jones said. “I’m not representing anyone. I’m not advocating for anything. I generally don’t even know who these people” — referring to who his lawyer clients might represent — “are or what their issue is. And it’s basic ‘how a bill becomes a law’ type stuff.”

Later, Jones said he misspoke and that Missouri Freedom Alliance had nothing to do with legislative issues. Rather, he said, the work was limited to consulting on private legal matters that the law firm he works for wasn’t able to handle.

Over the last three years, he said, there were only two instances where he received payment. He says he earned a “few hundred dollars” in 2010, and nothing from the company this year.

“I had to go back and look, and there are no political, governmental or legislative items,” said Jones, a Republican. “It was all private, legal consultations.”

Still, observers say the presence of an opaque company that provides income to Jones, who as speaker wields unmatched influence over the life or death of every bill in the state, is enough to raise concerns. Some say the example exposes flaws in Missouri ethics law that make it difficult to discern when a conflict of interest might exist.

“Any legislator who is making money from unknown sources raises questions of impropriety, because you don’t know if behind the veil of secrecy there is a quid pro quo,” said George Connor, a professor of political science at Missouri State University. “I have no reason to believe the speaker is doing anything improper. But because there is nothing tangible to hold on to, it just makes you suspicious.”

Such suspicion can erode public confidence in the legislative process, said Tim Flook, a former three-term Republican House member from Liberty.

“As a matter of principle, I’d hope he’d avoid anything that would appear inappropriate out of respect for the voters and to ensure whether by accident or by temptation that he’s not put in a truly improper situation,” Flook said. “Voters understand their legislators have to earn a living, but they insist you carry yourself in a way that is above reproach.”

Elected officials in Missouri must file personal disclosure forms with the state Ethics Commission. If they’ve earned more than $1,000 from an employer or entity, they must disclose it, along with investments and other financial information. They are not obligated to disclose exactly how much they’ve earned or what the business is.

Jones founded the Missouri Freedom Alliance in 2007, the same year he began his legislative career. According to disclosure reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission, Jones earned at least $1,000 from the company in the election years of 2008 and 2012.

The company has no online presence, and it shares the same post office box as his district legislative office and campaign office in Eureka, a St. Louis suburb. Jones said he saw the company, with its seemingly politically tinged name, as something he may need down the road when his career in elected office comes to an end.

“I chose the name because it sounded like an interesting name,” he said. “But there’s no ‘freedom alliancing’ being done.”

Because of attorney-client privilege, Jones said, he can’t divulge whom he’s worked for.

“I don’t want to be evasive,” he said, “but ethically, I can’t talk about clients and my legal work.”

Jones said there is nothing inappropriate about Missouri Freedom Alliance. It has never involved legislative business.

The speaker said he originally misspoke about the type of work he’d done because, “I’m busy all day long with legal matters and political matters and governmental matters. All day long I’m a lawyer, father, speaker, and sometimes my days just run together.”

Missouri Freedom Alliance, Jones said, might just be more trouble than it’s worth.

“I probably need to decide if it’s even worth having it any more.”

As members of a part-time legislature, lawmakers earn the bulk of their income outside the General Assembly. As speaker of the House, for instance, Jones is paid $38,415 a year by the state.

Wally Siewert, director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said lawmakers must be vigilant to avoid their private interests coming into contact with their public job.

“Trust is easily undermined when people have the impression that money is flying around behind the scenes,” Siewert said. “If you don’t trust the motivations of your elected officials, you’re not going to trust the process and you’re not going to trust the outcome.”

The mere appearance of hidden influence on an influential public official is problematic, said Doug Rushing, a Kansas City member of the self-described government watchdog group Common Cause.

“Politicians in general should avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, let alone a real conflict of interest,” he said.

The situation surrounding the speaker’s company, Connor said, is “curious, but not necessarily improper.”

“This is an LLC that exists and it’s operated by Speaker Jones, but what it does, who he works for and how much he makes is all secret. And that’s troubling,” Connor said. “But that doesn’t mean he’s doing anything unethical.”

Both Connor and Flook compared the arrangement to one involving former House Speaker Rod Jetton. During his tenure, Jetton ran a political consulting firm where he worked for the campaigns of the same lawmakers whose legislation depended on his blessing. All of Jetton’s work was for political campaigns, and thus, it was all publicly disclosed.

Many felt Jetton’s company created an inherent conflict of interest. The state ethics commission ultimately ruled he was not violating Missouri law, but that “there are still serious concerns about the ability of an elected official to avoid violation of … laws while conducting a consulting business for compensation.”

Connor said Jones’ side business exposes a notable hole in Missouri ethics law.

“If there was a ban on legislative consulting while in office or a ban on consulting or lobbying for a few years after you leave office,” he said, “then the concerns about the Missouri Freedom Alliance might not exist.”

The Star’s Dave Helling contributed to this article. To reach Jason Hancock, call 573-634-3565 or send email to jhancock@kcstar.com.

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