Government & Politics

Missouri legislative staffers earn big money as political consultants

The Missouri House (seen here) and Senate operate under ethics laws, including no contribution limits, that should be tightened, critics say. Rules for legislative staffers are also under scrutiny.
The Missouri House (seen here) and Senate operate under ethics laws, including no contribution limits, that should be tightened, critics say. Rules for legislative staffers are also under scrutiny. AP file photo

For nearly seven years, Yancy Williams was chief of staff to one of the Missouri legislature’s most influential members, Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer.

During that time Williams also earned hundreds of thousands of dollars moonlighting as a political consultant for various candidates and campaigns, including a political action committee funded by the Missouri Association of Realtors.

Williams’ side job may be more lucrative than the side jobs of many fellow Capitol denizens, but he’s hardly alone. And that fact troubles those who worry the Capitol is awash in campaign money.

Statehouse staff members doing campaign work has long been a way of life in the Missouri Capitol. It’s legal, as long as political work isn’t done on taxpayer time.

Many see no harm in the practice, since it typically involves low-level legislative aides working on their bosses’ re-election campaigns. Senior staff, who earn much bigger checks from campaigns, say they go to great strides to keep the two worlds separate.

Yet to critics, the scenario represents a potential conflict of interest, with the integrity of the legislative process compromised when staff members who earn taxpayer-funded salaries are also getting paid by outside interests with a stake in policy outcomes.

Since most statehouse staff aren’t mandated to file the same sort of financial disclosures required of senators or representatives, the flow of money can be difficult — and often impossible — to track.

That’s especially true if legislative staffers take on corporate clients who wouldn’t be required to disclose the relationship.

“It has a corrupting influence on the process,” said John Lamping, a former Republican state senator from St. Louis County. “It’s America, and you’re supposed to be able to do whatever you want to do in life. But this is how we get the system we have today.”

When a staff member is giving a lawmaker advice on a bill or pushing for a certain outcome, it’s important the public knows it is for policy reasons and not to benefit a campaign, a donor or a consulting career, said Kevin McManus, a former Democratic state representative who currently serves on the Kansas City Council.

“Some of these staff positions are incredibly influential,” he said. “They act as gatekeepers and trusted advisers. The question becomes, who’s paying you and how do their objections impact how you do your day job in the legislature?”

Most legislative staff who do campaign work get paid directly for any political activities they do. Their names show up on the disclosure forms that the campaigns they work for file with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

But a handful of staff have formed private companies to handle consulting work. For example, Williams isn’t listed on campaign disclosure forms for his consulting work. That money goes to a company called Consolidated Capital and Consulting.

The setup creates a loophole in the campaign finance system, Lamping said, which could allow those who wish to circumvent disclosure laws to get money to influential staffers.

“I could just create a (limited liability corporation),” Lamping said, “and if a company wanted to earn my favor they could hire my LLC and no one would ever know. There’s no disclosure required.”

Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican who pushed for comprehensive ethics reform last session, said improving transparency is always a good thing. He could support a mandate that senior staff file personal financial disclosures every year just like lawmakers.

But he calls the issue “small potatoes” and fears that if lawmakers put too much focus on staff political work, they won’t address “things that lead to institutional corruption in the Capitol.”

“I don’t see a big risk in my chief of staff working on the campaign of another Republican lawmaker,” he said.

Balancing politics and policy

Most legislative aides in the Missouri House make less than $30,000 a year, said Adam Crumbliss, chief clerk of the House. When it comes to campaign work, “they’ll probably be more of the ‘let’s go to dinner and fold envelopes and stuff ’em’ rather than any sort of high-level political consulting.”

Political work has to be done on their own time, Crumbliss said, and outside of the Capitol. Many use comp time when the legislature isn’t in session to work on campaigns. Others take a leave of absence from their government job.

Crumbliss said he’s heard that various lawmakers are discussing additional disclosure requirements as well as other regulations as part of the broader discussion of ethics reform.

“Everybody seems to understand that right now it’s a pretty wide-open scenario for people to have to exercise their own judgment,” he said. “Better to have statutory constructs in place to avoid those gray areas.”

Tom Smith worked for years as a top adviser to numerous House leaders, most recently former Speaker Tim Jones. He also ran a lucrative political consulting operation that worked for Republicans across the state.

Smith consistently faced critics who questioned whether his legislative clients benefited from their relationship with a staffer who wielded influence over a bill’s fate.

“How can members of the (Republican) caucus not feel threatened when a staff person paid by your opponent is working in a leadership office that has so much power over the success or failure of your legislation?” former state Rep. Chuck Gatschenberger wrote in a letter to his colleagues in 2013.

Smith is no longer working in the statehouse, and no current House staffer appears to be operating in a similar fashion.

The top aide to current Speaker Todd Richardson, David Willis, earned $34,000 for campaign work the last two years, nearly all of it from Richardson’s campaign committee.

In the Senate, senior staff can earn up to $78,000 a year, said Senate spokeswoman Anne Marie Moy. Staff must get approval from their senator before they can engage in campaign activities.

Several top Senate aides have set up private companies to handle consulting work. Because it’s not always easy for the public to track the companies down or connect them with legislative staffers, it’s difficult to say with certainty how many exist.

Zach Monroe, who works for Sen. Jeanie Riddle, has Mid-MO Strategic Consulting. Riddle’s campaign paid his company $20,000 last year.

Jim Lembke, Schaaf’s top staffer, has Liberty Ink LLC. Sen. Bob Onder paid Lembke’s company $13,000 in consulting fees last year.

Aaron Willard, who works for Sen. Ryan Silvey, has Stratagem LLC, which was paid nearly $5,000 this year by Rep. Paul Curtman’s campaign.

Patricia Thomas, who works for Sen. Brian Munzlinger, established Roll Call LLC, which was paid $2,500 this year by the attorney general campaign committee of Schaefer, a Columbia Republican and Williams’ boss.

Williams has Consolidated Capital and Consulting, although unlike the other Senate staffers with LLCs, his name doesn’t appear on the business’ paperwork filed with the Missouri secretary of state.

The company been paid around $250,000 by Schaefer’s various campaign committees over the years. Williams has served a dual role for Schaefer, working as the chief of staff in his Senate office — earning a $77,000 government salary in 2014 — and as deputy treasurer of his campaigns.

Since 2011, Williams has also earned more than $200,000 from Missourians for Fair Taxation, a political action committee funded by the Missouri Association of Realtors to fight off a proposed ballot measure that would have eliminated the state’s income tax and replaced it with a higher sales tax.

“As a consultant to (Missourians for Fair Taxation), Yancy Williams provides technical advice on initiative petition processes,” said Larry Keating, a Jefferson City Realtor who is chairman of the committee. “Mr. Williams’ role does not include dealing with the General Assembly or legislation.”

Williams, who recently left Schaefer’s office, said his campaign activity has never involved lobbying the legislature or advocating for legislation.

“My consulting work is to help those seeking ballot access for initiative issue campaigns, to develop campaigns to influence voters and to help activate grassroots,” he said in an email to The Star.

Asked whether he takes on clients besides campaigns, such as corporations who wouldn’t be held to the same disclosure standards, Williams replied that “any area where my services required reporting or disclosure, the information is housed at the Missouri Ethics Commission.”

There is “sufficient transparency now” under the current laws, Williams said, but “I certainly do not see it being an undue burden on staffers to file disclosure reports.”

Enhanced transparency

The aim of financial disclosure reports is to strengthen confidence in government by assuring voters that officials aren’t putting their own financial interest ahead of the public interest.

But even if staff were required to file them, the forms filled out by elected officials only require disclosure of businesses that earn income of more than $1,000. There is no obligation to disclose how much money was actually earned or exactly what the business does.

It would, however, publicly connect legislative staffers to any private companies through which they earn income — a process that’s currently not easy.

Lamping sponsored legislation in 2014 that would have included senior staff in the disclosure requirement and expanded the information on personal disclosure forms. McManus sponsored a bill with similar requirements this year.

That would line Missouri up more closely with the U.S. Congress, which requires more extensive financial disclosures from elected representatives and senior staff. But the U.S. House and Senate go one step further, capping the amount of outside income certain senior staff are allowed to earn.

Staff working on political campaigns, especially for interest groups who have business before the legislature, can create a problem, said Walter Siewert, director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

That’s especially true, he said, considering Missouri’s distinction as the only state in the nation with no contribution limits, no caps on lobbyist gifts and no cooling-off period for legislators before going into lobbying.

But he questions whether putting more restrictions on staff members is the right answer.

“One of the mistakes we make is that any ethical issue can be addressed with laws,” Siewert said. “I find it difficult to condemn them for wanting to apply their political skills to earn a living.”

James Klahr, director of the Missouri Ethics Commission, said state law already forbids legislative staff from using information obtained in their official capacity for personal financial benefit.

But “quid pro quo is never easy to prove,” he said.

Siewert suggests mandatory ethics training for lawmakers and staff in the hopes that it will educate them on how to avoid any potential pitfalls.

“In these situations, the onus is on the legislator,” he said. “If you believe your staffer may have a conflict, you should keep them out of discussion or abstain from voting.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock