JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Despite Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s political effort to defend the Missouri Attorney General’s Office’s (MAGO) actions and enact his own transparency standards, the outgoing House Speaker Tim Jones’ House Oversight Committee on Public Officials and Government Accountability met this morning before a room full of media.
Refusing to play defense in the face of a committee called to investigate his actions, Koster went on the offensive and called for ethics reform for all those elected in Missouri.
The hearing was expected by some House members to be a springboard for ethics reform going into the 98th General Assembly, which convenes on January 7. There are currently a handful of ethics reform bills pre-filed for the upcoming session as well as several initiative petitions to take various standards of ethics reform to a public vote in 2016.
Koster and Rep. Caleb Rowden (R-Columbia) testified before the committee. Koster’s testimony lasted for over 40 minutes with questions and discussion continuing with Koster for another half hour.
A cowboy boot-clad Koster testified on the three instances of alleged wrongdoing that the New York Times discussed in their article, which led Koster to call for reforms for the entire electorate similar to those he was imposing on himself.
“Take the same steps I am taking,” Koster said.
Rep. Kevin Engler (R-Farmington) discussed with the Attorney General how changes are necessary to ethics law based on how “bad” the article looked. Engler and Rep. Chris Kelly (D-Columbia), largely forgave Koster’s actions as not terribly troubling when considered within the larger context of Missouri’s almost non-existent campaign finance rules. The representatives specifically pointed to Doe Run legislation from previous sessions, which resulted in quick and large donations to House leadership.
Jones created the committee to take a closer look at “various questionable schemes” after a piece in the New York Times attempted to expose allegations of what Jones calls “numerous alleged improprieties and political shakedowns.” The piece cast light on the MAGO’s office dropping a case against 5-Hour Energy after Attorney General Koster spoke to a lobbyist for the company at a conference.
“Today’s article in the New York Times misrepresents the facts, distorting events to create an appearance of impropriety where none exists,” Koster said in a previous statement. He carried his statement’s thesis through to today.
Since the article and Jones’ repeated attacks of the Missouri Attorney General, Koster and his campaign publicly adopted transparency standards. The standards include refusing donations from any party currently in litigation with the MAGO and many more. Since the article’s release, Koster’s office has adopted new policies for initiating multi-state investigations through the MAGO’s office by requiring Koster’s direct approval.
Koster claimed in testimony that the policies he adopted with his campaign and in his office would have prevented the issues that the NYT article highlighted.
Koster told the committee that the 5-Hour Energy suit was dropped because staff deemed it as potentially frivolous. Currently, Missouri is among the 44 states in the country that have not filed suit against 5 Hour Energy.
“To think back when I was a Republican, we would have considered this lawsuit to be frivolous and an endangerment to business,” Koster said. “I believe I made the right decision. The right decision does not become the wrong decision because a lobbyist was in the discussion. A lobbyist is often the last person legislators talk to before they take a vote.”
Regarding the AT&T allegations, Koster said that his office was falsely cited to have joined a different multi-state suit regarding cramming charges.
“Contrary to the inferences contained in today’s New York Times article, this office reviews each case on its merits,” Koster said in a previous statement, which he defended today. “We have taken legal action against Pfizer at least six times and have taken legal action against AT&T at least twice. Together, these cases have resulted in millions of dollars on behalf of Missouri consumers.”
For the last allegation against the attorney general regarding pharmaceutical company Pfizer, Koster said that the office missed the deadline to join the multi-state suit and instead crafted an alternate legal theory to pursue action. The general shared that 16 other states failed to join a suit. Ultimately, no states other than Missouri pursued alternative legal theory, Koster said.
The hearing is one of the last duties of committee Vice Chairman Stanley Cox (R-Sedalia) and Rep. Chris Kelley (D-Columbia), who are terming out. Though Cox was not present, Cox and Kelly’s House careers have both been distinguished. Cox is the outgoing chair of the Judicial Committee and Kelly is one of the longest serving representatives due to serving before term limits were enacted. Kelley was able to pass multiple bills over the past couple years, including educational infrastructure updates and updating the criminal code, despite a large majority of the opposite party.
Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, was tasked with chairing the committee and was one of the first lawmakers to indicate that the hearing may serve as an opportunity to have a larger discussion about campaign and ethics reform in Missouri. Barnes, a young and energetic attorney widely seen as a rising star within the party, promised a fair and open committee and has promised several committee members not to lead a “witch hunt” of sorts against Koster. Jones was not present at the committee and announced last week that he would not be present for the hearing, but issued a statement upon the creation of the committee.
“The thorough investigative work completed by the New York Times has uncovered some deeply disturbing allegations that raise serious questions about Attorney General Koster and how the decisions made by his office have been impacted by large campaign contributions,” said Jones, R-Eureka. “We deserve to know the truth about what happened in these instances where it appears the best interests of the people of Missouri took a backseat to large sums of money that ended up in Koster’s campaign coffers.”
Jones added, “As Missourians, we expect our elected officials to serve with honesty and integrity, and it is imperative that we hold them accountable when it appears they have betrayed the trust of those who elected them to office. I am confident the oversight committee can delve deeper into these issues so that the truth is revealed and we know once and for all whether the Attorney General’s office was for sale. It is my expectation that the Attorney General Koster would work with the committee to make sure that his office is wholly transparent and accountable to the citizens of our state.”
Barnes is joined by state Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, who will serve as vice-chair. Other members of the committee include: state Reps. Kevin Austin, R-Springfield; Kevin Engler, R-Farmington; Don Phillips, R-Kimberling City; Shawn Roads, R-West Plains; Chris Kelly, D-Columbia; Stephen Webber, D-Columbia; Mike Colona, D-St. Louis; and Kevin McManus, D-Kansas City.
Rowden’s testimony regarded ethics reform bills he will be filing with House support. The bills will be filed separately, not as an omnibus, to ensure the highest rates of success over the next session.
“This is a clear cut issue,” Rowden said. “I can say with a strong amount of confidence that the House is serious about passing ethics reform.”
The Speaker of the House can create and appoint members to committees. Incoming Speaker-elect John Diehl (R-Town and Country) is under no obligation to continue the committee, which has a handful of members who will not be returning for future terms due to term limits. His office has declined to comment on whether or not the committee, or its vacancies, will be renewed in January.
Rachael Herndon was the editor at The Missouri Times and also produced This Week in Missouri Politics, published Missouri Times Magazine, and co-hosted the #MoLeg podcast. She joined The Missouri Times in 2014, returning to political reporting after working as a campaign and legislative staffer.
Rachael studied at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She lives in Jefferson City with her husband, Brandon, and their two children.