Jean Peters Baker’s plan to continue as Jackson County Prosecutor while serving as Missouri Democratic Party chair is drawing criticism from watchdog groups and the state GOP who question her ability to make impartial legal decisions and also wage partisan politics.
State Democrats chose Baker on Saturday to lead a party that has struggled in recent years to win statewide and legislative elections. She was appointed Jackson County prosecutor in 2011, elected in 2012 and again in 2016, running as a Democrat.
She told The Star that she plans to continue serving as prosecutor and will seek re-election in two years. That’s a problem, transparency advocates said.
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“It’s considered sort of a standard norm that when you get into an enforcement capacity within the government, you should not simultaneously be representing a party,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, which advocates for greater ethics and transparency in government.
“To serve as an officer of the Democratic party indicates lack of impartiality,” he said.
Baker’s duties as chair will include recruiting candidates, raising money and helping develop the party’s message.
In an email Monday, Baker said she will not take a salary as chair. If conflicts do arise, she said, there is an established process for referring cases to the Attorney General’s office.
“To be clear, Baker has served in the prosecuting attorney’s office for more than 20 years,” Baker said, referring to herself in the third person. “To suggest she would throw away her oath as prosecutor on behalf of politics ignores that history of service, her reputation and her sworn duty to uphold the Constitution of Missouri for all constituents.”
But Stephen Spaulding, an attorney and chief strategist for Common Cause, another national group that promotes government accountability, said the perception of unfairness can be just as damaging as the reality.
“Unfortunately it’s not only just the conflicts of interest themselves, but the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Spaulding said. “So every decision now by the county prosecutor will be viewed through a lens of ‘Does this have anything to do with their role as the party chair?’”
The Missouri GOP also questioned the propriety of holding both jobs.
“It would be deeply concerning for Jean Peters Baker to remain in her prosecutor role while also serving as the Chair of the Missouri Democratic Party,” Republican spokesman Chris Nuelle said in a statement Monday.
Earlier this year, Baker found herself in the spotlight when St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison apppointed her special prosecutor in the invasion-of-privacy case against then-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens. His then-hairdresser, with whom he was having an extramarital affair, alleged that Greitens took a compromising photo of her, coerced her into oral sex and struck her.
Baker considered a variety of criminal charges against Greitens but ultimately declined to bring a case against him.
Though there was probable cause for sexual assault, she said at the time, her office lacked the evidence to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Star’s Steve Vockrodt, Judy Thomas and Bryan Lowry contributed to this report