The Buzz

Ethics complaint filed over lobbyist gifts to Missouri lawmakers

A liberal group called Progress Missouri filed a complaint this week with the Missouri Ethics Commission over a $3,000 dinner held at a Dallas steakhouse in August for five Republican state legislators.

Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, Majority Leader John Diehl, Rep. Sue Allen, Sen. Ed Emery and Sen. Wayne Wallingford attended the event, which was paid for by a dozen lobbyists. But while five lobbyists reported the gifts to the Ethics Commission as going to the individual lawmakers who attended, seven other lobbyists reported the gifts to “the entire General Assembly.”

In the complaint filed this week, Progress Missouri Executive Director Sean Soendker Nicholson argued it is “absurd to think that all 197 members of the Entire General Assembly could reasonably be expected to attend an evening dinner at the Dallas Chop House in Dallas, Texas.”

“The steakhouse is 550 miles from the Missouri Capitol, a drive that would take about nine hours,” he said in the complaint. “Many members of the General Assembly would be required to travel even farther to attend.”

The complaint was filed against the seven lobbyists, not the state legislators.

Missouri law states that a gift can be reported to a group — such as a committee, legislative chamber or the entire 197-member General Assembly — if all of the members of that group are “invited in writing.”

Chuck Simino, who spent only $44.24 at the Dallas meal on behalf of the Missouri Cable Telecommunications Association, said he believes an invite went out to all lawmakers earlier in the year. But he still decided to report the gift to individual legislators because “the total General Assembly was not there.”

Nicholson points to a pair of lawmakers in his complaint who suggested via Twitter that they never recieved an invite to the event in Dallas.

In an interview with The Star last week, Missouri Ethics Commission Executive Director James Klahr said he didn’t believe the lobbyists in question violated the law but suggested the law may need to be clarified to avoid inconsistency. The law’s intent, he said, is that a gift can be given to a group when everyone in that group is invited and can reasonably be expected to attend.

According to a database compiled by St. Louis Public Radio, nearly 80 percent of the $673,000 spent by lobbyists on gifts during the first six months of this year were reported to groups instead of individuals. Critics of Missouri’s ethics laws have long complained that reporting gifts to groups makes it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to tell who is getting gifts from whom.