Government & Politics

Missouri pay-to-play allegations heat up over new links between lawmaker, megadonor

Senate leader Ron Richard: 'Tell him to kiss my ass'

Senate President pro temp Ron Richard responded to questions in April about a bill he sponsored that would benefit a major donor.
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Senate President pro temp Ron Richard responded to questions in April about a bill he sponsored that would benefit a major donor.

The relationship between the Missouri Senate’s leader and an emissary for one of the state’s most prolific political donors is raising eyebrows in the statehouse.

Senate President Ron Richard has been dogged with pay-to-play allegations all year over a bill he sponsored that would benefit a company owned by Republican megadonor David Humphreys. Both Richard and Humphreys are from Joplin.

Now, new details about Richard’s association with Paul Mouton, widely considered to be Humphreys’ eyes and ears in the Capitol, are rekindling the long-simmering accusations.

Mouton is not a registered lobbyist, but he was routinely seen walking the Capitol corridors early in the 2017 legislative session. At the same time, Richard’s office was regularly providing a parking space for Mouton in the Senate’s private garage.

Richard’s connection to Mouton goes beyond a parking spot. His campaign committee has paid Mouton $24,000 since 2014 for consulting and research, including $1,000 in January, February and March this year. No other candidate has reported any payments to Mouton in the last three years.

Mouton, who lives in Webb City in southwest Missouri, is one of Richard’s constituents, and a spokeswoman for the senator says his office tries to accommodate any parking request it gets from people who live in his district.

But some lawmakers see more in the connections between Richard, Mouton and Humphreys.

“David Humphreys made a $13 million investment in Missouri’s government,” said Rep. Mark Ellebracht, a Liberty Democrat, referring to the amount Humphreys and his family contributed to candidates during last year’s election.

“He’s going to make sure he gets a return on his investment,” Ellebracht said. “And that’s what I fear is happening here.”

Richard declined to comment, although his office said there were no scheduled meetings with Mouton on the senator’s calendar this session and only one last session.

Neither Mouton nor Humphreys responded to requests for comment.

Allegations of corruption

Humphreys’ company, Joplin-based Tamko Building Products, is facing a class-action lawsuit under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, a law that prohibits deceptive and unfair business practices. The lawsuit claims Tamko sold defective shingles, a charge the company denies.

Richard’s legislation would limit plaintiffs’ ability to sue individually or in class-action lawsuits under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act. He first filed the bill in 2015, after Humphreys’ company was sued. He’s filed similar legislation each year since.

This year’s version was filed Dec. 1, and six days later Humphreys cut Richard a $100,000 check.

An attorney for Humphreys said previously that the donation given to Richard was one of many that he gave out that day because voter-imposed contribution limits were set to kick in the next day.

Richard’s bill cleared a Senate committee, but its momentum stalled under the weight of the pay-to-play accusations.

A liberal government watchdog organization filed a complaint with the acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri requesting an investigation into whether Richard violated federal law by accepting a $100,000 contribution. Both Richard and Humphreys have vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

Todd Graves, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, penned an op-ed defending Richard, saying that “there is nothing within a country mile of a criminal act.”

“It is hardly surprising that a conservative businessman contributes to the campaign of the conservative Senate leader from the same small city,” Graves wrote at the time.

Senate parking

The Senate parking garage has 15 spots available for senators or their staff to reserve when individuals from their district visit Jefferson City. The Senate administrator’s office maintains an electronic parking reservation database to record the information. That information is public record.

Last year, Richard’s office reserved Mouton a spot in the Senate’s private garage 19 times in April and early May.

This year, a spot was reserved by Richard’s office for Mouton on 13 occasions between Jan. 9 and Feb. 21. Because the legislature works Monday-Thursday, lawmakers were in session 26 days during that period.

Among the dates Mouton had a spot reserved for him was Jan. 17, the day Gov. Eric Greitens delivered his first State of the State address. It was also the day before a public committee hearing on the legislation that Richard’s critics contend he’s carrying for Humphreys. Mouton returned Jan. 25, the day the bill was approved by a Senate committee.

The final time Mouton had a spot reserved for him was Feb. 21. Two weeks later, the pay-to-play allegations against Richard were discussed during debate in the House. Richard was asked about the issue, and he said those making the accusations should “kiss my ass.”

Mouton’s presence in the Capitol first began drawing attention last year, when several lobbyists quietly grumbled that he should have to register as a lobbyist with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

State law defines a lobbyist as a person who tries to influence the legislature in the ordinary course of their employment or who spends more than $50 on behalf of a public official. Those who fall under that category must register with the Ethics Commission and file monthly reports detailing any spending. Failure to register is a Class A misdemeanor.

“If he’s in Jefferson City lobbying, then he’s breaking the law,” Ellebracht said. “This is lobbying in the shadows, and it undermines the principle of transparent government.”

Humphreys vs. labor

Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican who has had his share of run-ins with Richard this year, said reserving a parking spot for a constituent is no big deal. He’s done it several times, he said, including for Kansas City Mayor Sly James and for his parents.

But 13 times “is a lot for one individual,” he said. “We didn’t reserve a spot 13 times total for the whole session.”

Silvey said he’s had only one interaction directly with Mouton.

“Everybody knows the name and that he’s associated with David Humphreys,” Silvey said. “He approached me to talk about my votes on labor bills.”

Tougher regulations on labor unions are one of Humphreys’ top legislative priorities, and Silvey has regularly split with his party and opposed enacting new regulations.

Humphreys spent big last year funding primary challengers trying to oust Republicans who were seen as too cozy with labor. He even donated to the Democratic candidate running against Silvey.

On Feb. 6, one of Humphreys’ main policy goals was signed into law when the governor signed a right-to-work bill that allows employees in unionized workplaces to stop paying unions for the cost of being represented.

Richard’s office reserved Mouton a parking spot the week the bill was signed. While he was in Jefferson City that week, the Senate also gave its initial approval to a bill banning local governments from giving preferential treatment to union contractors.

Silvey, who had previously called for federal authorities to investigate Richard’s relationship with Humphreys, said Mouton’s regular use of Senate parking is “another piece to the puzzle.”

“If there’s a perception of impropriety,” he said, “then this would probably contribute to that.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock