Government & Politics

Parson’s longtime friend is a lobbyist, and their money ties could cloud governor’s bid

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and lawmaker-turned-lobbyist Steve Tilley have been friends for years, going back more than a decade to when they served together in the Missouri House.

Tilley helped Parson become chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee in 2009, and chipped in $10,000 to Parson’s bid for state Senate in 2010. When Tilley resigned as speaker of the Missouri House in 2012 to become a political consultant and lobbyist, Parson was among his first clients.

Now, as Parson kicks off his quest to win a full term as governor in his hometown of Bolivar on Sunday, his long-standing friendship and political partnership with Tilley is once again under the microscope.

So far this year, a quarter of every dollar raised to elect Parson governor in 2020 is connected to Tilley. A large chunk of that money has come from lobbying clients engaged in industries regulated by the state agencies Parson oversees — ranging from gaming to medical marijuana to low-income housing tax credits.

Before Parson took over as governor in June 2018, following the resignation of former Gov. Eric Greitens, Tilley had 25 lobbying clients. In the year since Parson took the oath of office, that number has ballooned to more than 70.

Tilley didn’t respond to requests for comment, and both the governor’s office and Parson’s campaign insist Tilley has no role in either policy or political strategy.

Steele Shippy, Parson’s campaign manager and former spokesman for the governor’s office, dismissed any notion that political donations come with strings attached.

“Anyone who makes a campaign contribution and expects anything for it will be disappointed,” Shippy said in an email.

But those close to the governor say that while he has no formal role, Tilley has Parson’s ear and maintains considerable sway behind the scenes thanks in part to close relationships with top staffers like Aaron Willard -- who served as Tilley’s chief of staff in the House and now has the same job for Parson.

Parson’s opponents, most notably Democratic state Auditor Nicole Galloway, will “almost certainly use this information to raise voters’ doubts about the integrity of the governor’s campaign and allies,” said Dave Robertson, chair of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Whether or not it will ultimately move voters is unclear, but Robertson said the relationship is “ready–made for a negative TV ad, radio ad, or mailer raising suspicions about the governors’ relationship with big time lobbyists and funders.“

‘Friends for a long time’

During an interview with The Star shortly before the 2019 legislative session, Parson acknowledged he and Tilley have been “friends for a long time.”

Their friendship doesn’t owe itself to geography—Parson is from southwest Missouri and Tilley from Perryville, about an hour south of St. Louis—or generational ties. Parson, who turns 64 later this month, is 16 years older than Tilley.

Nor do they always line up on every issue, as when Parson openly supported a right-to-work law while Tilley lobbied against it.

But while their relationship has sometimes perplexed statehouse denizens, it has endured. That’s been true even when it cost Parson politically, as it did when his 2012 bid for majority leader of the Senate failed, in part out of concern among colleagues that Tilley would have too much influence on the chamber.

Since he stepped down as House speaker in the summer of 2012, Tilley has garnered some controversy.

When he resigned, he still had more than $1 million in his campaign committee. He invested a big portion of it in a Perryville bank, and later to donate to candidates, such as Parson, who then hired Tilley’s consulting firm.

Lawmakers felt Tilley had found a loophole in Missouri’s campaign finance laws, ultimately taking aim at his practices by passing legislation in 2016 requiring elected officials to dissolve their campaign committees when they register with the Missouri Ethics Commission as lobbyists.

“I understand the good and the bad of people like that,” Parson said during his December interview with The Star. “It’s just like your personal life, you’ve got to separate from your friends sometimes. He represents people, sometimes for different things that I don’t agree with and you have to understand that’s business.

“But as far as him being somebody in here,” Parson continued, “I don’t even guess he’s been in my office since I’ve been here, to give you an example of that. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t call or something like that. But he’s not what I would consider an adviser that I go to and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’”

Campaign cash

Tilley has been a lucrative source of campaign contributions for his friend.

Roughly 40 percent of the money Parson’s candidate committee raised during the first six months of 2019 is connected to Tilley, totaling roughly $125,000.

Of the nearly $987,000 raised during that period by Uniting Missouri — a political action committee created by Parson’s allies that is not subject to the state’s contribution limits — around 20 percent is connected to Tilley.

A chunk of that cash is $50,000, raised in one day by two of Tilley’s clients in the low-income housing tax credit industry — Sterling Bank and MACO Development Co.

Another $20,000 came from Torch Electronics, a Tilley client that operates gaming machines deemed illegal by state gambling regulators.

In addition to encouraging his clients to give to Parson and Uniting Missouri, Tilley has organized fundraisers for the governor.

In March, businessman Andy Patel held a fundraiser in his Cape Girardeau home for Parson that netted the governor nearly $50,000.

Patel said one of Tilley’s lobbying clients, OHM Concession Group, is run by some of his former employees that operate airport concession stands. They put Tilley in touch with him, and he agreed to host the event and reach out to friends and former business partners around the country to pitch in.

Much of the money raised that night came from Patel’s associates who live in Florida.

“Steve Tilley called me and I said yes I will do it,” Patel said. “I like politics but I’ve never been involved in raising money for anyone until this year.”

OHM, which did not respond to a request for comment, donated $2,600 to Uniting Missouri that evening.

Shippy, in his email, said: “Missourians have the right to participate in the political process and support candidates who share their values.”

In many ways, it should come as no surprise that Parson is supported by the clients that Tilley represents, said Robynn Kuhlmann, a political scientist at the University of Central Missouri. His political philosophy as consistently leaned toward a “conservative regulatory position” favored by business, she said.

But that support, and his close ties to the lobbyist pushing their interests, “may not look good for some Missourians who are skeptical of government and perceive government to have corrupting attributes.”

“Lately,” Kuhlmann continued, “we’ve seen political outsiders do quite well in Missouri’s elections.”

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Jason Hancock is The Star’s lead political reporter, providing coverage of government and politics on both sides of the state line. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he has written about politics for more than a decade for news organizations across the Midwest.
Crystal Thomas covers Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star. An Illinois native and a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has experience covering state and local government.