Less than two months after resigning from office, former state Rep. Kevin Corlew returned to the Missouri Capitol this week to testify for a national organization in what one watchdog said is an act of stealth lobbying.
Some experts question whether his appearance goes against the state’s revolving door law prohibiting former lawmakers from quickly returning to lobby their former colleagues in the Missouri General Assembly.
“If you’re representing an organization before a government for political purposes, that’s the real world definition of lobbying,” said Beth Leech, who studies lobbying as a political scientist at Rutgers University.
Corlew, a Kansas City Republican, narrowly lost his re-election bid to the Missouri House last fall. He then resigned in December, before his term was up, specifically to avoid a new law banning lawmakers from returning to the Capitol as lobbyists for two years after leaving office. Despite managing to avoid the two-year ban, Corlew still must abide by the previous law that required a six months wait before lobbying.
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On Tuesday, Corlew testified to lawmakers on the Senate’s Government Reform committee. On a witness testimony sheet, Corlew identifies himself as an attorney for Kansas City law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon, though he represented the American Tort Reform Association at the hearing.
Corlew said in an interview this week he’s very cognizant of rules, regulations and “integrity.”
“I wouldn’t do something that would put me in harm’s way of that,” he said.
On social media, the tort reform group publicized Corlew testifying in support of legislation for the organization.
“I was just testifying as a witness before the committee,” Corlew said. “That was the only thing I did, in line with my work here as an attorney.”
He added that he also visited “some of my past friends on other issues.” He said he spoke to them on a friendly basis, but “not on any legislative issue.”
“I would call him a stealth lobbyist,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, which advocates for greater ethics and transparency in government. ”He’s working for a lobbying association and promoting legislation.”
Missouri law does include exceptions, such as a person “testifying as a witness before the General Assembly or any committee.” Corlew said that exception meant he was abiding by the state’s revolving door law.
What Corlew is doing may ultimately be legal, but Leech said it can still be practically described as lobbying.
“This is a loophole that exists at the federal level too,” Leech said. “People who are acting as political representatives get to not call themselves lobbyists under the law, even though what they’re doing is part of political advocacy. And to me, a political advocate who is outside of government is a lobbyist.”
Corlew said the tort reform association is a client of the law firm, but he’s not a member. Testifying was part of his job at the firm as an attorney, he said.
“As with any client, the firm likely will bill (the American Tort Reform Association) for my time as an attorney, but they will not be paying me personally or directly,” Corlew said.
Lobbyists in state capitols often testify on behalf of large national organizations who cannot be there in person. Missouri citizens, as well as lawmakers, also testify for and against pieces of legislation in committees.
Lobbyists are required by law to register with the Missouri Ethics Commission and disclose their spending activity. Shook, Hardy & Bacon is listed as not having any lobbyists in the Capitol this session, according to the commission. Corlew has not registered.
The tort reform association has nine lobbyists listed as representing the group in Jefferson City. Corlew is not one of them.
In December, Corlew resigned from the legislature the day before the effective date of a constitutional amendment requiring ex-lawmakers to wait two years — instead of six months — before becoming lobbyists. The Clean Missouri amendment had passed with 62 percent of the vote in November.
At the time, Corlew took to social media and said he didn’t plan to “wine and dine” politicians. But he added that he didn’t want “to tie the hands of my clients for two years if they need representation on a matter that involves a governmental entity. “
Clean Missouri campaign manager Sean Soendker Nicholson said it sounds like Corlew is lobbying.
“Voters were very clear,” Nicholson said. “And Kevin Corlew knew what the rules are because he resigned early so he wouldn’t have to abide by the two-year ban.”
If he’s not registered as a lobbyist, said Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, “then it is what it is.
“If somebody wants to question it and challenge it, then that’s a conversation for the ethics commission.”
Corlew said doesn’t see his work this week as lobbying.
“I was not acting as a lobbyist, as a lobbyist is defined in the Missouri statute,” Corlew said.
If Corlew decides to become a lobbyist, he will be able to register in June at the earliest, after the Missouri General Assembly’s regular session.
Asked if he planned to become a lobbyist then, Corlew said: “No, not at this point. I plan on continuing to be an attorney.”
Includes reporting by The Star’s Jason Hancock.