Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster vehemently denied allegations published Wednesday in The New York Times that his office gave preferential treatment to companies it was investigating in exchange for campaign contributions.
Koster, a Democrat who is his party’s presumptive nominee for governor in 2016, was featured prominently in the story, which explored lobbyists’ influence on state attorneys general around the nation.
He denied any wrongdoing and slammed the Times’ reporting.
“This Attorney General’s office has consistently protected Missouri consumers from fraud, regardless of the identity of those responsible,” Koster said in a statement released to the media Wednesday. He later added that the Times article “misrepresents the facts, distorting events to create an appearance of impropriety where none exists.”
Koster’s denial did little to silence his critics. They argue that regardless of whether campaign cash influenced his decisions, they still create the appearance of pay-to-play politics in the attorney general’s office.
“This type of behavior strikes a blow to the people’s confidence in our institutions of government,” said Stephen Spaulding, policy counsel for the government watchdog Common Cause. “We can’t have a democracy where folks can reasonably question an attorney general’s alliances. Are they with the people and the public interest, or is he who pays the piper calling the tune?”
One prominent Missouri Republican said the Times story could trigger a legislative investigation of Koster’s office.
The Times report focused on the clients of Washington, D.C., law firm and lobbying group Dickstein Shapiro. Over the years, the firm has given Koster thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and hosted him at dinners and conferences around the country.
Dickstein has also represented numerous clients under investigation by Koster’s office.
Missouri was one of 33 states that were initially looking into claims of deceptive advertising by 5-Hour Energy, a company that sells a caffeinated drink. After a meeting in California with a Dickstein lobbyist who represents the company, the Times story said, Koster ordered his staff to pull out of the investigation. He told the newspaper that he had been unaware of his office’s involvement.
He told the Times he felt the investigation into 5-Hour Energy had no merit.
AT&T’s billing practices were being investigated by Koster and several other attorneys general. The Times reports that although Missouri didn’t pull out of the investigation, Koster decided to join a small group of attorneys general who wanted to resolve the matter without subpoenas or the threat of a lawsuit.
AT&T is a Dickstein client. The telecommunications giant also donated more than $27,000 in just the last two years to Koster, half before and half after his actions regarding the investigation. Missouri has no limits on contributions to politicians running for state office.
Koster told the Times that AT&T’s donations had no effect on his actions. He added that he was frustrated his staff got involved in the investigations of AT&T and 5-Hour Energy without notifying him.
He has since changed the policy in his office, the Times reports, to mandate that lawyers and managers in his consumer affairs division get approval from his top aides before opening any investigations involving a publicly traded company or any company with more than 10 employees.
Koster said in a letter released to the media that the policy shift was driven out of frustration that his office “had decided to investigate the nation’s 24th-largest company” without his knowledge and approval.
AT&T’s “stock price would move at the mere mention of our involvement,” Koster told the Times.
Another Dickstein client, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, benefited when Koster declined to participate in a unified investigation with other states into allegations the company made exaggerated claims about the effectiveness of two of its drugs.
Koster instead negotiated directly with a Dickstein attorney and Pfizer’s assistant general counsel.
Pfizer has given Koster $23,000 since 2009 and $320,000 to the Democratic Attorneys General Association, which in turn has given Koster $1.4 million since 2008.
Koster said the decision was made to negotiate directly with Pfizer because one of his staff lawyers missed a deadline to participate in the multistate investigation.
“This was an accident,” Koster told the Times.
In his statement released to the media Wednesday, Koster said his office has taken legal action against Pfizer at least six times and against AT&T at least twice.
“Together, these cases have resulted in millions of dollars on behalf of Missouri consumers,” he said.
Koster pointed out that Missouri is currently among the 44 states in the country that have not filed suit against 5-Hour Energy.
House Speaker Tim Jones said he is examining whether the legislature has the authority to further investigate the allegations in the Times report.
Jones, a Republican from the St. Louis suburbs, has made it no secret that he is considering a run for statewide office — specifically attorney general — in 2016. His final term in the legislature ends this year.
Lisa Gilbert, director of Congress Watch at consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen, said there is no way of knowing whether campaign contributions affected the attorney general’s actions. But, she said, “the appearance of corruption or bribery tarnishes the office.”
“This is an office that is so critical for consumer protection,” she said. “It’s typically a last line of defense, and it needs to appear to be above the fray.”
Companies wouldn’t be spending money on elected officials if they didn’t think it was worth it, said Wally Siewert, director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“These donors have access and expect that access to have results,” Siewert said. “Does that mean a corporation can do whatever it wants and then just pay off the attorney general? Of course not. But it would strain incredulity to believe the money is having no influence whatsoever.”
Even Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat rumored to be considering a run for governor in 2016, offered her thoughts on the allegations against Koster, a former Republican.
She said in a news release: “I’m confident Attorney General Koster is taking seriously the issues highlighted by this story.”