Freebies from lobbyists becoming harder to track in Missouri

11/25/2012 5:08 PM

05/16/2014 8:23 PM

Many state legislators hate it when their names show up on lobbyists' monthly expense reports. Getting free food or ballgame tickets may not sit well with constituents.

So some legislators work to avoid it. Not the free food and entertainment — the disclosure.

Legislators can void expenditures reflected in online reports by reimbursing lobbyists who paid the tab. On the surface, that sounds fine.

But some legislators use campaign funds to pay back the lobbyists. That practice has raised questions in the capital, because state law says campaign contributions “shall not be converted to any personal use.”

Take a disappearing expenditure involving House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka. He and his wife, Suzanne, received free tickets to watch the NCAA men's basketball regionals on March 25 from AT's suite at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

AT lobbyist John Sondag initially reported the tickets as unspecified “entertainment” costing $100 for Jones and $100 for the legislator's wife. But on July 3, Jones' campaign committee, Citizens for Timothy W. Jones, paid $200 to AT, calling it a campaign “fundraising expense.”

Sondag then amended his lobbying report to show that Jones had reimbursed AT Thus, the expense was no longer included in the total that lobbyists spent in March on the speaker, who was majority floor leader at the time.

Jones and other legislators who defend using campaign funds to reimburse lobbyists say attending dinners and ballgames is part of the job. Legislation is discussed at halftime. The conversation weaves back and forth between basketball and politics.

Jones said in a statement that he holds himself “to the highest ethical standards and I am not influenced by lobbyist spending. To avoid the potential for someone to think otherwise, I reimburse lobbyists for any expenditures. Transparency remains and always will be, my number one goal.”

Critics say the practice of spending campaign contributions on private outings with lobbyists skirts the edge of what the law allows. Also, when it comes to meals during the 4 1 / 2-month legislative session, each legislator already receives a $104 daily expense allowance from taxpayers to cover food and lodging.

In any event, the fund switch has one clear drawback for constituents: It makes it harder for them to track the money spent on their legislator.

MURKY CAMPAIGN LAW

At the heart of the issue is a murky campaign finance law, a problem that was highlighted by the Post-Dispatch last year when the newspaper reported that Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, spent thousands of dollars from her campaign fund on clothing and groceries.

Though money from donors can't be converted to personal use, it can be spent on “ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the duties of a holder of elective office.”

Also permitted are “expenses associated with the duties of candidacy or of elective office pertaining to the entertaining of or providing social courtesies to constituents, professional associations, or other holders of elective office.”

Speaker Jones said that often, when he attends social events, “I discuss many issues with a wide variety of local business owners and community leaders, and I visit with other legislators — all activities which involve my campaign or legislative duties.”

He obtained a legal opinion that backs up his interpretation of the law.

Attorney James C. Thomas III of Kansas City wrote: “The question of whether or not it is appropriate for a lobbyist to receive reimbursements from an elected official's campaign fund really depends on whether the reimbursement is for a ‘personal expense' or for an expense related to campaigning or the official duties of the office.”

Drawing that line is the “tricky issue,” Thomas wrote in the opinion, which Jones' campaign provided to the newspaper.

For example, a resort weekend for a legislator and his family, where no official or campaign activities are conducted, “sure looks like a purely personal expense,” he wrote. But a dinner with the local chamber of commerce could fall under the umbrella of a campaign event, according to Thomas.

Julie Allen, the Missouri Ethics Commission's executive director, said she could not judge specific situations. But speaking generally on what qualifies as a campaign expenditure, she said: “The law's fairly broad in that area.”

Even so, Mike Reid, a former ethics compliance director who now lobbies for the lobbyists, recommends that lobbyists turn down reimbursement checks if they come from legislators' campaign accounts.

“I would return it,” said Reid, who represents the Society of Governmental Consultants, as well as the Missouri School Boards Association and other clients.

“If you saw that it was really from the campaign account, you could be helping that person convert campaign funds to personal use,” said Reid, who sent his advice in a letter to the consulting group's members this summer.

Jones countered that many officials use campaign funds to pay for social or athletic events.

Attorney General Chris Koster bills his campaign directly for tickets while Gov. Jay Nixon uses a “luxury box” at Mizzou Arena that has been paid for by the Missouri Democratic Party, Jones noted. Koster and Nixon are Democrats.

POLITICALLY STICKY ISSUE

The practice of reimbursing lobbyists with campaign money has been growing over the last few years since former Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, announced that he would decline or pay back any freebies.

Legislators say they don't want to end up like state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, who was defeated Nov. 6, in part because of a scathing campaign portraying him as being wined and dined by lobbyists.

Lembke's opponent, Democratic Rep. Scott Sifton of the Affton area, used the issue in ads. And a website funded largely by plaintiffs' attorneys attacked Lembke by asserting that he had taken “more gifts than any state senator — $28,000.”

Lembke said the information was taken out of context, because the $28,000 was spread over his 10 years in Jefferson City.

He said he didn't try to hide his lobbyist-paid meals, which he said were often the only chance for groups to get “face time” with him during a busy day of hearings. Unlike some legislators, he said he doesn't believe it's appropriate to use campaign funds to wipe out lobbyist expenses.

“When I go out and raise money for my campaign account, I believe that the people who are contributing to me have an idea what that might be used for, and that's to get me re-elected,” not reimburse lobbyists, Lembke said.

Lembke and other legislators — both Democrats and Republicans — say their votes are not bought for the price of a burger or nice meal.

Having a lobbyist pick up the dinner tab is “honestly a matter of convenience,” said Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia.

“You have a meeting with a group of people and there's two lobbyists and four legislators there. Instead of splitting up the check, one person just gets it all,” said Webber, who said he sometimes picks up lobbyists' tabs.

But the perception the reports leave can be damaging, so some legislators watch carefully to see if their name pops up on a lobbyist expense report and quickly reimburse the lobbyist.

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said she checks each month where she ranks in terms of receiving lobbyist gifts and pays some back, either from campaign or personal funds.

“I don't want a high amount, period. I don't want a high ranking,” she said.

For instance, Chappelle-Nadal used campaign money to repay lobbyists Scott Penman and David Winton for $61.68 worth of gifts the lobbyists gave the senator's staff at the end of the legislative session.

Rep. Caleb Jones, R-California, tapped his campaign account to repay the University of Missouri for 10 free tickets he received for three Mizzou basketball games. The tab: $380.

“It seems like more and more of them want to pay, compared to 10 years ago,” said Steve Knorr, who lobbies for the University of Missouri and fields frequent requests for tickets. Whether the reimbursement comes from the lawmaker personally or a campaign account doesn't matter to MU, he said.

“To me, that's kind of between them and their donors,” Knorr said. “As long as we're getting reimbursed, from our standpoint, cash is cash.”

Not all officials used campaign money to pay back lobbyists. Rep. Jeanne Kirkton, D-Webster Groves, writes a personal check whenever she sees that a lobbyist reported an expenditure for her or her staff.

“People give me campaign money to succeed in my campaign in running for office,” not hobnob with lobbyists, Kirkton said.

MOVES HARD TO TRACK

How many lobbyist-paid outings disappear from the books is impossible to say.

Speaker Jones reimbursed lobbyists for at least $2,215 they spent on him, his family and his staff from January through April.

That total reflects only instances where lobbyists noted that a repayment was the reason for amending the expense report. Some amended reports give no reason. Also, legislators sometimes repay lobbyists before the initial report is filed.

A more common way to stay off lobbyists' expense reports is by only partaking in group events. If the entire House or Senate or an entire caucus is invited, the lobbyist reports that the expense was for a group, without identifying the participants.

Other reasons lobbyists cite when they delete expenses include: the official attended but didn't eat, or the expenditure should have been reported as an “in-kind” campaign contribution.

An “in-kind” donation can be anything that is not cash — food, beverages or services. In other words, a lobbyist's gift is transformed into a campaign donation on paper. No money need change hands to take the gift off the lobbyist's expense report.

For example, a lobbyist initially reported spending $120 in February on Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-south St. Louis County, but later deleted it from his expense report. Instead, his firm showed it as an “in-kind” donation to her campaign.

Either way, Haefner still got the gift — a $120 case of Missouri wine.

“The legislator called and said, ‘Hey, I didn't use it for drinking in my office. It was for the campaign side,'” said lobbyist Richard McIntosh, whose associate originally reported the expense.

McIntosh, who represents a long list of corporate and nonprofit clients, said he wouldn't mind if legislators banned lobbyist gifts. Keeping track of who attended a function, who ate the food and who returned a gift can be an accounting nightmare, he said.

“It is an enormous pain in my backside,” he said.

“There are a lot more (legislators) now who are very much concerned about whether something shows up on their report than there used to be 10 to 12 years ago. Some are very, very sensitive to something showing up on the reports, because they don't want to be beat up by the newspaper.”

Sifton, who beat Lembke in the state Senate race, plans to prefile a bill in December that would ban lobbyist gifts.

His rationale: During the legislative session, the $104 per diem from taxpayers easily covers renting an apartment, as well as meals, he said.

If a lobbyist picks up the dinner tab, “legislators can then pocket more of their $104 that day. I'm just not sure that's the best use of taxpayer money,” he said.

While similar bills have died in previous years without even getting a hearing, Sifton said he hopes the issue gets traction this year. Though some colleagues argue they don't have time to leave the Capitol and buy their own lunches, he had an answer for that.

“There's a cafeteria in the basement.”

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