Government & Politics

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens refuses to disclose details of donations for inauguration

Eric Greitens sworn in as Missouri's 56th governor

Eric Greitens took the oath of office Monday, Jan. 9, 2017 on the steps of the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City. He is the state's 56th governor.
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Eric Greitens took the oath of office Monday, Jan. 9, 2017 on the steps of the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City. He is the state's 56th governor.

A collection of corporations, wealthy donors and lobbyists bankrolled Gov. Eric Greitens’ inaugural celebration earlier this month.

But just how much they gave to the new governor may never be made public.

That’s because unlike his predecessor, who used a campaign committee to raise money for his inauguration, Greitens formed a nonprofit to seek out donors.

Nonprofits aren’t required to disclose their donors and aren’t subject to recently enacted campaign donation limits. Greitens has refused to say how much was raised, how much was spent, how much each donor chipped in or whether he’ll ever make any of that information public.

So far, the only thing he’s been willing to share is a list of “benefactors” he says helped finance the inaugural festivities. On the list are some of the state’s largest companies, most of whom have business before the legislature that Greitens may one day have to either sign or veto.

The situation has caused heartburn for some, especially given the fact that Greitens made ethics reform and anti-corruption the centerpiece of his administration and his campaign for governor.

“I can’t understand how this governor can preach to members of the legislature about corruption, then turn around and behave in a way that most Missourians would say is corrupt,” said state Rep. Michael Butler, a St. Louis Democrat. “He’s taking money from corporations and lobbyists who are trying to get legislation passed, and he won’t tell us how much he’s taking.”

Full disclosure is the only way Missouri residents can know for sure that the new administration is free from potential conflicts of interest, said state Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican.

“Dark money has the potential for corruption,” Schaaf said. “Sunshine helps disinfect. The reason we make people disclose is to prevent corruption.”

Greitens did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The Republican governor was elected after a campaign focused largely on his pledge to clean up state government.

But his commitment to transparency has always been shaky at best.

Greitens’ campaign benefited last year from $6 million in so-called dark money, cash funneled through nonprofits to hide its origin.

A federal political action committee called SEALS for Truth cut him a check for $1.9 million in August. It was later revealed the real source of that money was a nonprofit called the American Policy Coalition, which was established by an Ohio attorney whom the Center for Public Integrity labeled the “nexus of one of the nation’s most mysterious networks pouring secret money into elections.”

Another federal political action committee, LG PAC, spent $4 million in the GOP primary to help Greitens, with its money coming from a Texas-based nonprofit called Freedom Frontier.

In both instances, where the money actually came from will likely never be known.

“His campaign took advantage of every big-money loophole in the book,” said John Messmer, a political science professor at St. Louis Community College at Meramec. “And even if you can argue that he violated no laws, his actions clearly suggest a disdain for transparency.”

During the campaign, Greitens also refused to release his tax returns. While he was under no legal obligation to do so, his critics said disclosure would help shed light on any possible conflicts of interest, especially considering he earned five-figure speaking fees on the corporate lecture circuit.

In December, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed that people serving on Greitens’ transition team were required to sign a gag order. Efforts to obtain records from the transition, which was taxpayer-funded and subject to Missouri’s open-records laws, have met with mixed success. An open-records request filed by The Star on Nov. 29, for example, has still not been fulfilled.

Most recently, Greitens has refused to disclose how much the state will be paying Drew Erdmann, who the governor announced shortly after taking office would serve in the new position of chief operating officer.

“The only way to make sure the government is doing the people’s work is through transparency, by being able to actually see what our government is doing,” said Jonathan Groves, associate professor of communications at Drury University in Springfield and president of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition. “The best way for (Greitens) to live up to what he said during the campaign would be through radical transparency.”

Among the nearly 100 “benefactors” Greitens says helped fund his inauguration were Anheuser-Busch, Boeing, Centene, Enterprise, Express Scripts, Kansas City Power & Light, Kansas City Southern, Monsanto, Pfizer and Wal-Mart.

Also listed was Uber. The California-based vehicle-for-hire company is pushing Missouri legislation that would enact regulations Uber thinks would allow it to expand throughout the state. The legislation also would exempt the company from paying local or municipal taxes.

Greitens’ inauguration festivities, which included a performance by country music star Sara Evans, appeared to be more elaborate than those of the last two governors. Democrat Jay Nixon and Republican Matt Blunt each spent less than $250,000 on their inaugural celebrations.

Missouri’s most expensive inaugural was that of Democratic Gov. Bob Holden, who spent $1 million in 2001. Like Greitens, Holden used a nonprofit to raise money, although he eventually made his fundraising details public.

In response to Holden’s inaugural, Republican lawmakers began pushing for legislation requiring disclosure of all future inaugural fundraising and spending. It nearly became law in 2003 but died on the legislative session’s final day when differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill couldn’t be ironed out.

Schaaf, the Republican senator from St. Joseph, is sponsoring legislation this year called the Dark Money Disclosure Act, which aims to require certain political nonprofits to disclose where their money comes from. But he doesn’t think his bill would have any impact on inaugural fundraising.

“I myself think that should be the law, that the money given for the inauguration and other similar events should be disclosed,” he said. “But I don’t know if my bill would require that. I just never thought about it.”

It’s in the public’s interest to know how much individual donors gave to the governor’s inaugural fund, said Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“Imagine one donor gave $50,” he said. “Imagine another gave $50,000. Now imagine another donated $5 million. Which one are you most likely to listen to? That’s why transparency is so important. People don’t give huge amounts of money without wanting something in return.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock