Government & Politics

Gov. Eric Greitens’ reliance on ‘dark money’ drawing greater scrutiny from lawmakers

Missouri lawmakers are increasingly raising alarms about Gov. Eric Greitens’ reliance on dark money — donations routed through nonprofits and other organizations to hide their source
Missouri lawmakers are increasingly raising alarms about Gov. Eric Greitens’ reliance on dark money — donations routed through nonprofits and other organizations to hide their source

As a nonprofit founded to promote Gov. Eric Greitens makes its first foray into Missouri politics, state lawmakers are increasingly raising alarms about the governor’s reliance on dark money.

The Missouri Senate voted 19-12 this week in support of a requirement that nonprofits engaging in political activity disclose their donors. The vote was largely ceremonial because the requirement was attached to a resolution urging states to convene a constitutional convention.

But with an ethics reform debate on the horizon, the vote demonstrates that Greitens’ use of anonymous money to bankroll his political activity will assuredly continue garnering attention.

“Gov. Greitens ran on draining the swamp,” said state Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican. “Yet he’s accepting dark money. And he needs to know that we’re going to be talking about it every day until the end of session. I hope he’s listening.”

Dark money — donations routed through nonprofits and other organizations to hide their source — is what’s fueling a New Missouri Inc., a nonprofit created in February by some of Greitens’ closest advisers. It has launched a series of digital ads urging Missourians to call specific Republican state senators and ask them to “keep fighting for Gov. Greitens’ conservative agenda.”

Those who call the number listed in the ad are connected to an automatic voice message instructing them to enter their ZIP code. Once their data is collected, the caller is forwarded to the senator’s office.

The governor’s senior adviser, Austin Chambers, said this is only the first round of advertisements from A New Missouri. There’s more to come.

At one point during the 2016 campaign, Greitens appears to have agreed with the idea that dark money was a bad thing.

Much of Greitens’ campaign was focused on cleaning up politics in Jefferson City. That includes a ban on all lobbyist gifts and tougher restrictions on when lawmakers can become lobbyists after leaving office.

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio last summer, he slammed candidates who “set up these secretive super PACs where they don’t take any responsibility for what they’re doing.”

“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 we are running,’ ” he said at the time.

Greitens’ spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the governor’s apparent change of heart.

But by the time voters went to the polls in the GOP primary last August, Greitens had already benefited from $4 million in dark money spending on his behalf from a federal political action committee called LG PAC. He then accepted a $1.9 million check from another federal PAC called SEALS for Truth.

In both instances, the money was routed through nonprofits, meaning it will probably never be known who actually made the donation.

After he defeated Democrat Chris Koster in November, his campaign aides set up a nonprofit to raise money for his inauguration.

Greitens released a list of “benefactors” he said contributed to the nonprofit, which includes dozens of corporations and lobbyists who have business before the legislature that the governor may one day have to either sign or veto.

However, Greitens has repeatedly refused to disclose how much each donor actually gave, how much was raised or how much he spent on his inauguration. Greitens’ predecessors — Democrats Bob Holden and Jay Nixon, and Republican Matt Blunt — each released all spending and fundraising information regarding their inaugurations.

Then in February, the governor’s advisers set up A New Missouri Inc., a nonprofit that Chambers said was established solely to advocate for the governor’s agenda.

As a nonprofit, A New Missouri does not have to abide by campaign contribution limits overwhelmingly approved last year by Missouri voters. And it isn’t required to disclose who is giving it money.

State Sen. Jill Schupp, a St. Louis County Democrat, said Greitens’ campaign rhetoric about cleaning up corruption in Missouri government rings hollow now that he’s awash in dark money.

“The very governor who came in as an outsider and pointed his finger at people here who he felt weren’t doing the people’s business,” she said, “that very governor has all kinds of concerns around who is funding his campaign and what his nonprofit is up to.”

John Pudner, executive director of the conservative campaign finance watchdog Take Back Our Republic, said the key to rooting out corruption is transparency.

“Disclosure is our top priority,” Pudner said. “When things are done in secret, they increase the risk of corruption.”

Politicians need to get the message, Pudner said, that voters want the system fixed.

“They’ll either get the message,” he said, “or else their constituents will take it out on them on election day.”

State Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican, said voters have a right to know who is trying to influence their elected officials with political donations.

“If you’re wanting to clear the air of a perception of corruption,” Silvey said, “(disclosure) is a good place to start.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock