Democratic lawmakers question the need for the governor’s press secretary and money used for governor’s flights
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – House lawmakers on Wednesday morning questioned a number of items in the budget for the governor’s office, seeking answers from Gov. Eric Greitens’ chief of staff, Mike Roche, and his deputy, former Rep. Caleb Jones.
Representatives asked for answers and clarification concerning a number of issues, including the governor’s alleged lack of interaction with the media, funds used to fly to Washington D.C., and how the state will be paying for the new chief operating officer that was created by one of his executive orders back in January.
Greitens has been criticized in recent weeks for avoiding any significant interviews or taking questions from members of the media, particularly the Capitol press corps. While he has taken some interviews with radio and TV outlets, as well as the national media outlets, many critics say he carefully picks and chooses outlets in an effort to control the interviews and the message.
When an article was published last week by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointing out the tactics, Greitens’ senior adviser Austin Chambers responded with a tweet, saying the governor “communicates directly with the people (& answers their questions) – no filter from liberal media.”
Greitens echoed that idea during an interview on Fox News Wednesday morning.
“We’re always going to upset the liberal media, we’re never going to make them happy,” Greitens said. “We don’t work for the liberal media. We work and we fight for the people.”
Representatives asked Roche and Jones about this issue during Wednesday’s House budget hearing, beginning with Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, questioning the pair on whether there could be any cuts made to the governor’s staff working in communications.
“The governor’s office has about three employees using almost $300,000 for press and is not actually answering questions from the press. I wonder if we could see any reductions there, and if you guys might be in favor of that,” he asked.
“I think there has been a lot of interaction with the press. Our communication team responds almost on a daily basis to press inquiries,” Roche said. “Since January 9th, we’ve probably coordinated, off the top of my head, at least a couple of dozen interviews. We talk daily to local radio and some TV. Just yesterday, it was a local St. Louis station. Today, the governor is talking to Fox, so they happen on a very regular basis.”
Roche also reiterated the statements from Chambers and Greitens about communicating directly with the people.
“I’d also say that different from past administrations, the communications team spends a great deal of time leveraging the social media platforms. The governor firmly believes that he needs to talk directly to the people as often as possible and in as clear terms as possible.”
Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, rallied in defense of the governor, saying that Greitens had only been in office for roughly seven weeks.
“Before we go into the partisan attacks of trying to take things out of the governor’s office, I think it’s a little bit too soon to start passing partisan accusations,” he said.
“I don’t think this body had any time limit on the last governor for the partisan accusations and attacks,” Butler responded. “Some of the same things you guys attacked the last governor on, this governor is doing in this budget, and we would hope that there is some consistency with this governor, as there was under the last governor.”
Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, said she’d be happy to see the partisan accusations stop but said that accountability is needed.
“I don’t think this governor has been as available to the press as the ones previous,” she said. “You can talk to reporters around the building, and see that they’re frustrated with not having direct access to him to get answers. We still don’t know who paid for the inauguration, and there are still other concerns about finances. He’s now made three trips to Washington D.C. in the seven weeks that we’ve had, so we’d like a little accountability of where those funds are coming from.”
While the plane past governors typically used are owned and operated by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Roche said that plane was not used for any flights to D.C. He says that, in fact, the governor has not used that plane since taking office.
Instead, he has used private planes and commercial airlines to make his trips, which Roche says no taxpayers money was used for. But when asked where the funding for those trips did come from, Roche had few answers.
“I have no information on that,” Roche said. “It’s not something that the Governor’s Office would have or retain.”
Chambers told the Associated Press that Greitens used campaign funds to fly to D.C. earlier this year on a commercial airline. Lawmakers are still concerned as to who is footing the bill for the private plane used to fly the governor around during his tour of ceremonial signings for the right-to-work legislation.
Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, noted that the new COO and his $125,000 salary was not included in their budget sheets, asking where those funds would come from.
Roche says that the funds will mainly come from the Governor’s Office, but portions of it will come from the departments that the COO, Drew Erdmann, will be working with. When pressed on whether the departments have a say in how much of their budget goes to paying for the COO, Roche said it’s still in the process of being worked out.
“It’s an ongoing dialogue,” Roche said. “This is a brand new position, so we have to flush out what makes the most sense. Currently, it’s broken down between the departments in which he thinks he’ll be spending the most time and on the size of the department.”
Following their presentation, Roche and Jones quickly made their way out, only responding to questions by directing the press to seek answers with Greitens’ press secretary, Parker Briden.