The clock ticked down Wednesday as time started running out on the Missouri Ethics Commission.
With just three members left, the commission with oversight of one of the most ethically-challenged states in America soon will lack the four members it needs to conduct official business.
Those vacant seats send exactly the wrong message at exactly the wrong time. They say Missouri doesn’t care about ethical breaches or about enforcing the law.
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Gov. Eric Greitens shares some of the blame. As of Wednesday, he had failed to nominate replacements, which the Missouri Senate must consider and confirm before the commission can return to full strength.
A similar problem cropped up two years ago when former Gov. Jay Nixon waited until the last minute before naming replacement commissioners. That also left the commission unable to meet.
This lackadaisical attitude is beyond exasperating. State officials know Missouri loses half of its ethics commission on March 15 every other year. Replacements can and should be named and confirmed weeks before the vacancies occur so the commission can meet without interruption.
Defenders of this ridiculous situation insist a temporary lapse in full commission membership won’t cause irreparable harm. The commission’s paid staff continues to do their jobs, and deadlines remain in place. The website still works. Commission decisions, they say, can wait.
But leaving three commission seats unfilled sends a breathtakingly horrible message to Missourians and the nation at a time when many people already consider the state ground zero for corruption and unethical behavior.
Wednesday, a leading Democrat filed a complaint with the ethics commission, claiming Greitens lied about the use of a list of nonprofit donors to raise money for his 2016 campaign.
Lobbyist gifts to legislators remain unrestricted. Allegations of pay-to-play influence have surfaced. Committees linked with former lawmakers use donations for meals, cigars, booze, event tickets and travel.
Virtually every attempt to reduce or eliminate potentially unethical behavior has languished in the legislature. Only the people have been able to put limits on potential conflicts of interest by taking action at the ballot box.
It’s been argued that the Missouri Ethics Commission — which meets Thursday by telephone — lacks significant power to stop this behavior. That’s largely correct. The commission needs more authority and more money.
But it’s the only body in Missouri that can at least try to sift through some of the muck and hold elected officials to some standard of accountability. As of Friday, even that thin reed will be gone.
Missouri’s lawmakers and its governor must do better immediately by ensuring the ethics commission has enough members to live up to its name.