When Gov. Eric Greitens issued an executive order creating a prescription drug monitoring program, he said his goal was to help combat the scourge of opioid addiction in Missouri.
His critics quickly homed in on another detail: To start the program, Greitens’ administration was giving a no-bid contract to Express Scripts, a St. Louis-based pharmacy benefits management company that donated an undisclosed amount of money to the governor’s inauguration.
“When you’ve got the governor taking money from Express Scripts and not disclosing how much, and then giving Express Scripts a contract, it seems to me to have the air of impropriety. It really raises red flags for me,” said Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican and frequent critic of the governor.
The governor, along with Express Scripts, is adamant there is nothing inappropriate about the contract.
But it’s become a familiar accusation, one that’s dogged Greitens throughout his nearly eight months in office: That secret campaign contributions could be influencing the governor’s actions.
His critics say this is the unavoidable byproduct of the governor’s reliance on so-called dark money — contributions routed through nonprofits to hide the original source of the money.
Greitens’ candidate committee, which must disclose its donors and abide by voter-imposed contribution limits, has reported raising only $126,000 this year.
His nonprofit, called A New Missouri Inc., can take unlimited contributions and never has to disclose where its money comes from. It recently spent more than $500,000 on a statewide television ad campaign and cut a $250,000 check to a PAC formed to defend Missouri’s right-to-work law.
The secrecy surrounding Greitens’ fundraising has translated into near constant questions about his motives. And to ethics reform advocates, who argue voters have a right know if special interests are trying to curry favor with politicians, the situation has a corrosive effect on the public’s faith in government.
“The problem is everyone in the country thinks government is rigged against them,” said John Pudner, executive director of Take Back Our Republic, a conservative government reform group. “That kind of cynicism is made worse when voters can’t see who is trying to buy influence.”
Greitens and ‘dark money’
Despite decrying anonymous money in political campaigns early in his bid for governor, Greitens was a huge beneficiary of dark money last year — more than $6 million in dark money was spent on his behalf during the campaign.
That trend has continued into his term as governor, fueling the suspicions of his critics.
The governor has steadfastly refused to disclose how much corporations and lobbyists gave to bankroll his inauguration. But the Osage Nation tribe in Oklahoma admitted to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in May that it contributed more than $50,000 to “establish a good relationship with the governor” in the hopes he’d look favorably on the tribe’s goal of building a casino in Missouri.
Centene Corp. was one of three companies that received a lucrative managed care contract last year. It was also one of a handful of corporations and lobbyists that donated to the governor’s inauguration. Schaaf repeatedly questioned during the 2017 session whether Centene had ever given to A New Missouri.
Similar allegations were raised regarding the St. Louis electric utility Ameren when the governor called lawmakers back into session to approve a bill favored by the company. The governor’s senior adviser, Austin Chambers, has previously denied Ameren gave any money to A New Missouri.
News of Express Scripts’ contract has once again sparked debate on the appearance of impropriety.
Ryan Burns, spokeswoman for the state agency that handles contracting, said data held by Express Scripts and the tools that perform analysis of that data are unique to the company. Under these circumstances, Burns said, state law permits a contract to be awarded without a full competitive bidding process.
The Express Scripts contract is worth $250,000, and Burns said the state may enter into similar contracts with other companies pertaining to the drug monitoring program.
Chambers said he was not going to respond to “ridiculous accusations from critics who oppose efforts to save lives by fighting the opioid crisis.”
The push for donor disclosure
During the 2012 election, several nonprofit groups ran ads attacking various candidates. The biggest target was then-Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who faced a barrage of attacks paid for with money routed through a nonprofit.
Republican lawmakers vowed to take action.
Leading the charge at the time was Rep. Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican who is now speaker of the Missouri House.
Richardson began working on a dark money bill that year, telling St. Louis Public Radio at the time that he hoped to put an end to the practice of routing money through nonprofits to avoid disclosure.
“I think in the system that’s predicated on transparency, we’ve got to address that,” he said.
He was even more direct with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, saying: “There should be full disclosure for every not-for-profit that’s participating in political activity.”
However, Richardson never filed legislation pertaining to nonprofit disclosure. In the years since, he’s focused considerable energy on ethics reform but stayed mostly quiet on dark money. He declined an interview request with The Star for this story.
The idea was rekindled during the 2017 legislative session when a bipartisan group of senators pushed a dark money bill. But it ran into fierce resistance from a group of Republican state senators, and the legislation’s momentum sputtered.
Gregg Keller, a veteran Republican consultant who runs the firm Atlas Strategy Group, said he’s alarmed at the push for donor disclosure, saying it “should offend conservatives in virtually every way.”
“I simply don’t understand how a vast expansion of the government’s ability to get into our private business is conservative,” Keller said. “It’s really off-putting when you see members of your own party trying to sell something like this as conservative.”
His main concern, Keller said, is that disclosure has the potential to chill speech through the harassment and intimidation of donors.
“What the left has done consistently in recent years is target individuals and companies and industries whose political giving they don’t like,” he said. “They get targeted with boycotts and protests.”
Pudner said he thinks there’s real momentum behind the idea in states all over the country. Even when there is no foul play involved, just the appearance of corruption can have ugly ramifications. Voters realize that, he said, and elected officials will learn it soon enough.
“Transparency puts all the power in the voters’ hands,” he said. “When you hide donors, it tears the roots out of democracy.”