When Eric Greitens was seeking the Republican nomination for governor last year, he claimed to support transparency in the funding of political campaigns. He said in one interview, “What I’ve found is that the most important thing is that there’s transparency around the money,” continuing, “I’ve been very proud to tell people, ‘I’m stepping forward, and you can see every single one of our donors, because we are proud of our donors and we are proud of the campaign that we are running.’ ”
Since that time, Greitens has turned his back on transparency, accepting millions of dollars from undisclosed donors and now disavowing donor disclosure altogether. With this reversal, he has betrayed the Republican Party and the people of Missouri. His new stance threatens the integrity of our republic.
In every republic, there have been those who would use the powers of their office to purchase political support, granting favors, reprieves and public funds to those who delivered them votes. Such corruption has at times led to enormous waste, stood in the way of justice and undermined the rule of law. Today, in this age of multimillion-dollar campaigns, the threat of such corruption looms large, and transparency around the money is our first line of defense.
Here in the Show-Me State, voters have long supported transparency, overwhelmingly approving ballot measures in 1974, 1994 and 2016 to create and then strengthen Missouri’s campaign finance disclosure laws. However, some in power oppose such transparency and have sought a return to secrecy. On their watch, political operatives have been allowed to use corporate vehicles like 501(c)4 nonprofits to bypass Missouri’s transparency laws, accepting and spending political donations without disclosing those donations’ sources and amounts.
Several of us in the Missouri Senate have fought to restore transparency, proposing commonsense legislation that Missourians widely support. However, those who prefer secrecy have blocked this legislation, and the governor has chosen to take their side, claiming that transparency can expose political donors to ill treatment by those who disapprove of their donations. He now calls supporters of transparency “people who support donor intimidation,” slandering the millions of Missourians who support transparency but obviously oppose donor intimidation.
Stories of donor intimidation in Missouri are few: I have yet to hear of even one from recent decades. Today, Missouri has strong safeguards against such intimidation. For instance, Missouri statute makes it a felony for employers and membership organizations to discriminate against employees and members on the basis of their political giving. Also, case law allows for anonymous donations to political groups whose supporters can be shown to be at risk of real intimidation.
All the same, Gov. Greitens insists that political donations must not be subject to disclosure — especially donations to groups like the ones that launder secret money for Greitens himself. Some of my colleagues and I have offered a compromise, proposing that small donations to such groups be exempt from disclosure and that only the largest donations to such groups be disclosed — those exceeding $5,000 per person per election cycle. Under this plan, at least those donations that most threaten to corrupt the political process would be disclosed. But Greitens refused to support even that most basic of measures. In his view, Missourians have no right to know who is bankrolling the careers of their representatives in government.
Instead of working to find a solution that restores Missourians’ faith in the political process, Greitens is further undermining that faith, collecting untold riches from secret donors and using those riches to advance his political career. And as he solicits potential donors, he wields in his hand the governor’s pen and, with it, the coercive power of the state.
Does he withhold government contracts from those who do not donate, granting them instead to those who do? Does he withhold his support from legislation favored by those who do not donate, supporting instead the legislation of those who do?
Such behavior would constitute true intimidation, and intimidation of a sort far more common than that of which our governor so vehemently warns. However, without disclosure, the public cannot monitor for such behavior among Missouri politicians, nor can Missouri’s voter-enacted contribution limits be effectively enforced. What results is a deluge of big money in politics, an onslaught of corrupt deal-making and a loss of public trust in Missouri government.
State Sen. Rob Schaaf is a Republican from St. Joseph.
This column originally appeared in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.