Gov. Eric Greitens vowed during last year’s campaign to jump-start the debate on ethics reform in Missouri.
But he probably never imagined it would play out like this.
On Tuesday, a Senate committee held a public hearing on legislation that would force so-called “dark money” groups to disclose their donors. The full Senate is expected to debate a bill this week capping lobbyist gifts to elected officials, and several senators have vowed to amend it to try to rein in dark money — campaign contributions routed through nonprofits and other groups to hide the source of the funds.
With less than two weeks left before the state Constitution mandates that lawmakers adjourn for the year, most observers had already declared ethics reform dead.
But after a nonprofit founded by the governor’s campaign team began running radio ads, digital ads and robocalls attacking Republican Sen. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph by giving out his personal cell phone number, a group of senators demanded a debate on dark money before they would allow any other legislation to pass.
“The people of Missouri want ethics reform, and they don’t like these games that are being played,” said Sen. Gary Romine, a Farmington Republican. “I don’t think any member of this chamber wants to have a gun held to their head, that the governor might do this to them.”
On Monday night, Schaaf, Romine, Republican Sen. Doug Libla of Poplar Bluff and Democrat Sen. Jason Holsman of Kansas City essentially held the Senate hostage with procedural maneuvers until GOP leadership agreed to allow debate on dark money legislation. Shortly after the four senators agreed to sit down and end their stall tactics, a committee hearing on Schaaf’s dark money bill was scheduled.
At the center of the controversy is A New Missouri Inc., a nonprofit organization founded in February by Greitens’ campaign treasurer, Jeff Stuerman. It is housed in a building owned by one of Greitens’ biggest donors and is run by the governor’s senior adviser, Austin Chambers. Among those Chambers has said are working out of the nonprofit’s office is Meredith Gibbons, the Greitens campaign’s finance director, and Catherine Chestnut, the governor’s sister-in-law.
Because A New Missouri Inc. is a nonprofit, it is not subject to Missouri’s campaign contribution limits and is not required to disclose where it is getting its money.
Late last month the organization launched a series of ads attacking Schaaf, a frequent critic of the governor’s reliance on dark money contributions.
Despite his many ties to the group, Greitens has denied having a day-to-day role in A New Missouri Inc. or being involved in the decision to run ads attacking Schaaf.
During Tuesday’s committee hearing, several senators expressed concern about publicizing the identities of donors to political nonprofits.
“This bill is trying to execute a careful dance between transparency and privacy,” said Sen. Bill Eigel, a St. Charles County Republican.
James Harris, a veteran Republican political consultant in Missouri, said conservatives give to political nonprofits to protect their identity out of fear they could face retribution.
“The left attacks any time you start talking about conservative changes,” Harris said, later adding that individuals “don’t want their business targeted. They don’t want their business boycotted. That’s what (the left) does to bully and intimidate conservatives.”
Schaaf said that while he understands the concerns of those in opposition, transparency is the only way the public can be assured their government isn’t being corrupted.
“Voters should have the right to know who is trying to influence their elected officials with large contributions and expenditures,” Schaaf said.
The bill specifies that a donor’s identity would be disclosed only if the organization engages in political activity and only if the donor gives more than $5,000.
Even if the Senate approves legislation pertaining to dark money, it still faces long odds of becoming law.
The bill would still have to wind its way through the legislative process in the House. While ethics reform has been a top priority of House leadership, and Speaker Todd Richardson has previously expressed support for requiring political nonprofits to reveal their donors, time is running short.