JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, has faced widespread scrutiny, both within the Capitol and in media outlets around the state, for his sponsorship of SB 5. The legislation would institute large changes to the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MPA), which is designed to protect consumers from false or erroneous advertising when products cause injury or monetary harm.
Complicating matters, David Humphreys’, one of Richard’s largest donors, own company, TAMKO Building Products, Inc. is currently facing a class action lawsuit for allegedly faulty shingles, advertised to last for 30 years and failing after fewer than 10. Humphreys made a $100,000 contribution to Richard registered Dec. 8, 2016, the day Missouri’s new campaign contribution limits amendment went into effect.
Richard had prefiled the bill just days earlier on Dec. 1, 2016.
Cries of corruption have rung out in Jefferson City, and accusations and inferences of quid pro quo politics from the media and politicians on both sides of the aisle have put the longtime state legislator in the spotlight this session.
Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty, has repeatedly criticized Richard on the legislation, and Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, has also had strong words for the Joplin legislator.”
“Gov. Greitens told us for over a year during the campaign that there was a culture of corruption in Jefferson City,” Silvey said. “Sen. Richard has been both Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem of the Senate. If in fact there has been corruption in our Legislature, then Sen. Richard either presided over it or was ignorant of it.
“Neither is a hallmark of strong leadership.”
Richard defended his bill and his character in a press conference in March with choice words for Ellebracht.
“Tell him to kiss my ass,” Richard said. “There has been no more ethical person in this building that’s been Speaker of the House, President of the Senate, Majority Leader than me.”
Missouri Republican Party Chair Todd Graves, a former United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, also defended Richard’s bill.
“It is hardly surprising that a conservative businessman contributes to the campaign of the conservative senate leader from the same small city,” Graves wrote in a response Monday to an editorial from The Kansas City Star calling for the U.S. attorney to investigate Richard. He argued The Star had absolutely no evidence “pay to play” politics occurred between Richard and Humphreys. “To say that the businessman may somehow benefit in an already-filed case is ludicrous. Your editorial board may long for the day when campaign contributions are illegal, but as of today, they are still protected by the First Amendment.”
Yet, the scope of SB 5 extends far beyond Richard.
First, the effort to reform the MPA has existed in Missouri long before 2016. In 2012, a product liability bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Kehoe similar to Richard’s current bill passed through the Senate but died in the House. Richard also offered the merchandising practice bill in 2015.
Second, other parties whose campaigns have taken checks from Humphreys largely escaped the same level of scrutiny.
The businessman is one of the two largest contributors to Republican political candidates in the state. Humphreys, perhaps most famed for opening his coffers to help pass right-to-work, gave $100,000 each to Reps. Rob Vescovo and Holly Rehder in December, around the same time Richard received his amendment. Kehoe and Sen. Bob Onder , as well as House Majority Floor Leader Mike Cierpiot and Rep. Courtney Allen Curtis, also took donations from Humphreys around the same time.
Gov. Eric Greitens and Attorney General Josh Hawley received millions of dollars from Humphreys and his sister, Sarah Atkins, in last years elections, and numerous lawmakers also took in six-figure sums from the pair as well.
Greitens and Hawley each also received massive last minute donations, far larger than Richard’s. Greitens received $1 million on Dec. 7, 2016 while Hawley took in $500,000 on Dec. 8, 2016 – both roughly the same time as Richard, Vescovo and Rehder received his.
Hawley, in his role as attorney general, has a specific interest in the law given that his office deems what is a deceptive and unfair practice by a business with its own slew of regulations. Under the original MPA, the attorney general was the only party that could even pursue such cases, though other attorneys can now do so as well. The attorney general and prosecuting attorneys also have criminal enforcement responsibilities against anyone who violates the MPA with intent to defraud.
Greitens himself has also urged changes to the MPA, even bringing it up in his State of the State address near the beginning of session when he discussed tort reform.
“We need to change our joinder and venue rules to end these out of state lawsuits, and we must end frivolous lawsuits by reforming the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act,” Greitens said. “Our judicial system is broken, and the trial lawyers who have broken it, well, their time is up.”
Greitens’ office did not respond to requests for further inquiry into his desire to change the bill.
However, Sen. Rob Schaaf, who was attacked on social media last week by Greitens nonprofit A New Missouri, mentioned in a speech Monday on the Senate floor that Greitens had taken those funds all the while his nonprofit attacked him for renting a room from a lobbyist – a friend of Schaaf’s for 20 years.
“Don’t ignore the log in your eye when you see the speck in mine,” Schaaf said, referencing Matthew 7:5. “I’m removing the speck… now you remove the log. Disband the nonprofit set up to launder your secret contributions, give back the $1 million you took from David Humphreys and stop trying to deny justice to the Missourians who say Humphreys cheated them.”
He added that even perceived improprieties by legislators and all political figures needed to stop to restore the faith of Missourians in state government and “stamp out corruption itself.”
“Governor, you need to stop calling us in this chamber corrupt, career politicians,” Schaaf added. “You can clean this mess up, you can lead Missouri to be the example for the rest of the nation to follow… and if you ever want to go to the White House, you have to start now.”