Sen. Rob Schaaf has been demanding for months that the Missouri Senate debate a ban on so-called dark money.
The St. Joseph Republican and a bipartisan group of like-minded lawmakers have repeatedly threatened to derail Senate business unless GOP leaders push forward with ethics reform legislation that requires disclosure of dark money — campaign contributions routed through nonprofits and other entities to hide the source.
Schaaf and the group were inspired, in part, by a series of radio ads, digital ads and robocalls launched last month attacking Schaaf by publicizing his personal cellphone number. The ads were paid for by A New Missouri Inc., a nonprofit founded by Gov. Eric Greitens’ campaign advisers that is not subject to contribution limits and is not required to disclose where it gets its money.
On Friday morning, Schaaf finally got his wish when the Senate took up legislation aimed at capping lobbyist gifts to elected officials at $40 a day. He offered his dark money ban as an amendment with assurances it would get a vote.
But he was immediately greeted by a filibuster by a group of Republican senators who decried the idea as an infringement on free speech and personal privacy that could subject donors to retaliation.
“Today, it’s a fine day to defend liberty,” said Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles Republican.
Schaaf quickly realized the filibuster was going to block any vote on his dark money ban, and he ultimately set it aside.
As senators were debating dark money, news began percolating through the Senate that the governor’s nonprofit was allegedly gearing up to launch another series of attacks against GOP lawmakers.
The Springfield News-Leader reported Thursday morning that A New Missouri Inc. had posted prototypes of digital ads on its website attacking four Republican senators and one Democrat. They apparently were taken down Wednesday night, and they no longer appear online.
According to the News-Leader, the governor’s nonprofit is set to target senators who have joined Schaaf’s call for more disclosure: Republicans Bob Dixon of Springfield, Doug Libla of Poplar Bluff, Gary Romine of Farmington and Ryan Silvey of Kansas City, and Democrat Jason Holsman of Kansas City.
“I want to say, with every fiber in my being,” Dixon said Friday, “that I am honored to be found on a list with those mentioned.”
Austin Chambers, the governor’s senior adviser, told The Star in an email Thursday morning that “there aren’t ads running against those senators.” When asked specifically about the News-Leader report, he said: “They aren’t ads and they aren’t running.”
Schaaf’s bill would require groups that make independent political expenditures disclose any donors who have contributed more than $5,000 in a two-year period.
He said secret money has become too powerful, and the governor’s nonprofit is the prime example.
“When secret money is used to influence Missouri politics,” Schaaf said, “it erodes the integrity of our process. It’s corrosive.”
Critics of Schaaf’s bill agreed that the governor’s nonprofit stepped over the line when it attacked him and gave out his cellphone number.
“I think that’s wrong. I think that’s immature, and I think that’s childish,” said Sen. Dave Schatz, a Franklin County Republican. “Hopefully the governor understands that’s not the way this place should operate.”
But each argued that just because the governor’s nonprofit acted inappropriately doesn’t mean other nonprofits should be affected.
Onder, who led the filibuster of Schaaf’s proposal, ticked off a wide-ranging list of groups he feared would be forced to disclose donors under Schaaf’s bill, including the National Rifle Association, Americans for Prosperity and Planned Parenthood.
Joining Onder and Schatz in opposing Schaaf’s bill Friday were Republican Sens. Bill Eigel of St. Charles County and Brian Munzlinger of Lewis County.
“What your bill is about is protecting elected officials from criticism,” Onder said.
Silvey slammed opponents of the bill, saying it was “silly that we’re coming out here and waving the freedom flag.”
“The Constitution protects your speech,” Silvey said. “So you don’t need to be anonymous.”
He argued against the idea that proponents of disclosure are trying to limit free speech. They are simply trying to keep people from exploiting a loophole, he said, that allows anonymous money to influence politics.
“We’re not trying to limit what you can say or trying to keep people from criticizing us,” he said. “No, criticize away. But own it.”
In addition to A New Missouri Inc., the governor’s advisers also set up a nonprofit to raise money for his inaugural. Greitens has released a list of corporations and lobbyists he says donated to that nonprofit, but he has refused to say how much they gave or how much he raised.
During last year’s gubernatorial campaign, Greitens benefited from $6 million in dark money spending.
As the Senate debated dark money Friday, news broke that a judge had thrown out portions of a campaign finance amendment approved by voters last year. The $2,600 individual contribution limit remains, but gone is a prohibition on committee-to-committee transfers. That opens the door for money to be shifted around to circumvent the donation limit.
Both Schaaf’s dark money ban and the underlying bill capping lobbyist gifts were set aside Friday. It’s unclear whether either will be resurrected before lawmakers adjourn for the year at 6 p.m. May 12.
“The people of Missouri will have to handle it on the ballot,” Schaaf said. “And they will. It may take a while, but they will.”