When former Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones decided it was time to shut down his campaign committee, he transferred more than $650,000 his donors had given him over the years to a political action committee called Leadership for America.
Since it was formed last year, the committee has donated $22,000 of that money to various Republican candidates in Missouri and given roughly $38,000 to a handful of charities.
But it’s also spent roughly $5,000 in recent months at golf resorts in Missouri, Arizona, Colorado and Tennessee, as well as several thousand more on meals, cigars, booze, event tickets, travel and renovations to Jones’ St. Louis County office.
The spending is raising red flags among ethics watchdogs who worry that Jones has found a way to use campaign money to bolster his lifestyle, despite strict prohibitions on using the money for personal business.
It’s an especially worrisome trend, critics contend, in an era when term limits will force many longtime lawmakers to leave the political stage with healthy campaign bank accounts.
“As money meant for campaigns is allowed to creep into items and activities that clearly just benefit the individual, you’re allowing the donation to become nothing more than a bribe,” said John Messmer, political science professor at St. Louis Community College-Meramec. “If that isn’t corruption, I need a new dictionary.”
Jones directed questions about the PAC to Tom Smith, his former legislative chief of staff and longtime political adviser.
Smith said Jones is not the only person benefiting from the PAC’s spending on travel and entertainment. Also taking part are advisers and board members of a nonprofit associated with the PAC that is also called Leadership for America.
There is nothing inappropriate about the PAC’s spending, Smith said. The golf outings, meals, baseball tickets and other expenses were all part of “coalition building,” he said.
“Advisers or board members are out working on coalition building, a lot of that type of work is done at golf courses,” Smith said. “It’s done at restaurants. It’s done at various places. Some of the tickets to ballgames, a lot of those are given away to other special interest groups or grassroots types of people to build coalitions.”
Smith declined to say who serves on the nonprofit’s board.
But to critics, the spending doesn’t pass the smell test.
“What’s passed for normal in Jefferson City is obscene,” said Sean Nicholson, a longtime liberal activist and critic of Missouri’s ethics laws who is now campaign director for a group called Clean Missouri.
Life after the legislature
Jones, who served eight years in the Missouri House and now works for several conservative political organizations and hosts a talk show on St. Louis radio, is hardly the only former elected official with a robust campaign war chest.
When Steve Tilley stepped down as speaker of the Missouri House in 2011, he had a campaign account worth more than $1 million. He invested most of that money in a bank in his hometown of Perryville. Over the years, he used the campaign fund to make donations to various Missouri legislators, some of whom eventually hired him or his family as consultants on their campaigns.
Tilley has since shut down his candidate committee and, like Jones, transferred the money to a PAC. His is called MO Majority.
Former state Sen. Paul LeVota, who resigned in 2015 after being accused of sexual harassment by former interns, transferred more than $100,000 from his campaign account into a PAC he started called Leadership for Missouri.
Under state law, the money in these PACs can’t be converted to any personal use. Neither Tilley’s nor LeVota’s PAC appears to be engaging in the type of spending that Jones’ PAC does. But critics say spending by Jones’ Leadership for America dances on the edge of what the law allows.
For example, Leadership for America spent $1,400 at golf resorts in Missouri, Colorado and Florida from July through September this year. Each was labeled on the PAC’s disclosure reports to the Missouri Ethics Commission as a “grassroots expense” or “travel expense.”
In July, the PAC spent $913 at Pierpont’s at Union Station, which dubs itself “Kansas City’s premier steakhouse and seafood restaurant.” It spent $238 at House of Cigars the same month, labeled as a “fund-raising expense,” and $468 at the Waldorf Astoria Chicago in August.
Also listed as a “grassroots expense” on disclosure forms was nearly $4,000 spent by the PAC in September at Vivid Seats, an online ticket reseller, and $1,200 on St. Louis Cardinals tickets in April.
So far this year the PAC has spent around $5,500 on miscellaneous travel expenses and $3,600 on airfare.
It also paid $200 for a membership in the Republican National Lawyers Association. Jones is an attorney.
This isn’t the first time Jones has been criticized for his campaign spending.
During his time in the legislature, Jones regularly caught flak for accepting gifts from lobbyists — meals, sporting event tickets, travel — and then repaying them using campaign money. The practice can make it more difficult to track lobbyist spending, and has been criticized as an attempt to use campaign cash for personal benefit.
Hedge fund investment
Leadership for America started the year with about $656,000.
It received no contributions this year and has spent more than $140,000. Yet it reported having $864,000 on Sept. 30.
The increase stems from Leadership for America’s earning hundreds of thousands from an investment in a hedge fund managed by an Austin, Texas-based company, LRT Global Opportunity LP.
The firm is run by Lukasz Tomicki, a former longtime consultant with Pelopidas LLC, the St. Louis lobbying firm connected to Republican mega donor Rex Sinquefield. Jones works as director of political communications at First Rule Media Network, a division of Pelopidas.
Lawmakers voted to prohibit candidates from using campaign funds for this type of investment in 2016, arguing that campaign contributions are supposed to be used in political campaigns, not as a mechanism for investments that perpetuate the campaign bank account.
According to the Missouri Ethics Commission, no similar prohibition exists for PACs that aren’t associated with candidates.
Leadership for America began the year with roughly $353,000 invested in LRT Global. As of Sept. 30, the PAC reported that the investment totaled about $700,000.
The PAC is benefiting, Smith said, from a savvy investment strategy and a booming stock market.
“The market is doing great,” he said.