It was in the middle innings of the sixth game of the World Series Tuesday that a New York Times story began making the rounds by email and Twitter. The report showed how corporations and their lobbyists are infiltrating the offices of state attorneys general, the people who are supposed to be making sure that those same companies follow the law.
One had to read only to the third paragraph to spot the name of Missouri’s own Chris Koster. It seems the Democrat with his sights on the governor’s office rubs elbows quite a bit with the sector that he oversees. He attends corporate-financed conferences in places like Santa Monica Beach. He speaks to groups that are interested in forming a “productive relationship” with state legal eagles.
And what is more productive in a relationship than campaign cash? Koster has received chunks of it from corporations and their lawyers.
Koster issued a statement disputing the notion that this coziness affects the way he does business. The Times article, he said, “misrepresents the facts, distorting events to create an appearance of impropriety where none exists.”
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But you can put Koster’s version of events side by side with The Times version and his conduct still won’t pass the smell test.
Koster shouldn’t have agreed to a speaking engagement with Pfizer at the same time his office was negotiating a settlement with the drug maker on charges of fraudulent marketing. He shouldn’t have pulled his office out of an inquiry into the marketing practices of the 5-Hour Energy drink immediately after an attorney representing the company cornered him at the Santa Monica conference.
Just ask Missouri Republicans. They were aghast. House Speaker Tim Jones announced he was forming a committee to look into Koster’s activities.
Jones has his eye on the attorney general’s race in 2016, so there’s that. But while he’s in investigative mode, might I suggest a related inquiry into the Missouri House and Senate Republicans who allow themselves to be wined and dined by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
The council, or ALEC, introduces mostly Republican state lawmakers to the executives of corporate America and their agendas. Jones himself has attended 10 ALEC conferences, for which the group and its corporate sponsors picked up the tab. And he has sponsored and backed numerous bills that were written by the council. Apparently he doesn’t see the similarity in his behavior and Koster’s, even though it’s as obvious as an elephant’s backside.
Catherine Hanaway, a former House speaker who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor in 2016, also jumped into high dudgeon. The Times story, she said, “shows that General Koster is willing to neglect his professional duties and bend his standards to gain political advantage.” The attorney general, she said, “is all about politics.”
So it would seem. But Hanaway has accepted more than $900,000 in campaign contributions so far this year from St. Louis meddling multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield and groups he finances.
Which came first? Hanaway’s declaration that, as governor, she would seek to eliminate Missouri’s income tax? Or the donations from Sinquefield, who supports that particular, crazy cause?
It doesn’t really matter. The point is that people like Koster, Jones and Hanaway are so steeped in Missouri’s money-grubbing political culture that they can’t perceive how tarnished they are by it.
Missouri is the only state with no limits on campaign contributions or lobbyist gifts. And so Koster takes inappropriate corporate contributions because he can. Sinquefield is trying to buy himself a governor because he can.
Legislators like Jones take marching orders from ALEC and other groups because they can, and they want to. And they long ago quit worrying about how it looks.
Some politicians see how corrosive Missouri’s political culture has become. Tom Schweich, the Republican state auditor, sees it. Jason Kander, the Democratic secretary of state, and a handful of lawmakers from both parties have boldly and persistently called for meaningful ethics reform, only to have their efforts swatted down by Jones and other legislative leaders.
Koster got called out, and he deserves the backlash he’s encountering. But the people showing the greatest outrage will fight the hardest to preserve the system that made his indiscretions possible.