House approves ethics reforms for local officials, open records exemption changes

The Missouri House has voted to enact a number of ethics reforms for local  officials, but support for the bill was tempered by an amendment that creates exemptions to the state’s open records, or “Sunshine,” law.

Representatives Nick Schroer (left) offered an amendment adding exemptions to Missouri’s open records law to a bill sponsored by Representative Shamed Dogan that dealt with ethics reform for local officials. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 445 extends to local officials the ethics policies that state lawmakers and statewide officials are now subject to.  It would bar lobbyists from making expenditures for local government officials, superintendents, or members of school boards or charter school governing boards.  Such expenditures could also not be made for those officials’ staffs or specific members of their families.

The bill would also keep elected or appointed local officials from becoming lobbyists for two years after leaving office.  It would limit to $5 per day the amount a gift to such officials can cost, and cap at $2000 any campaign contributions for municipal, political subdivision, and special district office races.

Bill sponsor Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) has proposed that language for several years, based on how he saw local officials being lobbied while he was a city councilman in Ballwin.

“This is simply making sure that that same ethical standard to which we hold ourselves is also going to apply to our local elected officials, who have the same level of public trust, who are also trusted with taxpayer dollars, and who we also expect not to profit from their public service,” said Dogan.

A previous year’s version of Dogan’s bill received 149 votes when the House sent it to the Senate.  This year’s version passed out of the House on Thursday, 103-47.  Democrats said the lessening of support was due to an amendment to Dogan’s bill that they say “guts” Missouri’s open records law that has been in place since 1973.

“I appreciate [Representative Dogan] and his quest to make Missouri a better place and also improve the perception that people have and the confidence that folks have in their elected officials,” said Kansas City Democrat Jon Carpenter.

“But at the same time I’m going to vote against House Bill 445 today because unfortunately it doesn’t just do those things.  It also upends almost five decades of open records and transparency law in this state.  In fact almost unquestionably, when this bill passes it’s going to be the most radical undermining of open records and transparency law in state history,” said Carpenter.

The amendment, offered by Representative Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon), would add to exemptions from the Sunshine law any personal cell phone numbers, social security numbers or home addresses; records of constituent case files including any correspondence between an elected official and a constituent; and any document or record “received or prepared by or on behalf of” an elected or appointed official “consisting of advice, opinions, and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”

“I took a massive interest in trying to protect the integrity of our positions,” said Schroer.

Schroer discussed with Representative Steve Helms (R-Springfield) incidents in the news that he said are the types of things he wants to prevent.

Representative Jon Carpenter and other Democrats said the changes HB 445 would make to Missouri’s open records law go too far. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications

“The Huffington Post ruined an entire family for one person’s tweets, doxing them,” said Schroer.

“So you mean the Huffington Post printed private, personal information out on social media because they disagreed with a tweet that one of the family members made?” asked Helms.

“Correct,” said Schroer.  “They accessed personal information just like I am trying to protect here.”

Democrats were largely unmoved by the concerns Schroer cited.

“I believe [Representative Schroer] protests way too much,” said Representative Deb Lavender (D-Kirkwood)“I don’t think the statute we have currently in place allows half of what he’s just told us is sunshineable … I don’t hand out people’s social security numbers.  I won’t give addresses.  I’m covered in the law that we have today.”

Dogan said he felt the provisions offered by Schroer regarding constituent information were necessary.

“I am concerned about people’s e-mail addresses, phone numbers, other personal information being a part of the public disclosure and us not being able to redact that information really is concerning,” said Dogan.  “With that said I’m not sure about the portion that has been the most controversial where it’s talking about all communications.  I think that might have been an unintentional kind of overreach, so I’m a little bit concerned about that section and I would be willing to work on toning that language down somewhat.”

Several Republicans voted against HB 445.  Dogan said most or all of those were likely opposed to campaign finance limits, which many Republicans believe limit free speech.

Today’s vote sends the legislation to the Senate, where several lawmakers in both parties said they expect it will undergo further revisions.

Missouri House asked to consider multiple ethics reforms

House lawmakers continue to lay out a slate of proposed ethics reforms they believe would help restore the public’s trust in Missouri’s elected officials.

Representative Kip Kendrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Kip Kendrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Columbia Democrat Kip Kendrick presented to the House Committee on General Laws, House Bill 217, an omnibus bill encompassing a series of measures offered by other members of his caucus.  He said each proposed reform is based on promises made by candidates during the recent campaign cycle – promises that he says were endorsed by voters based on which candidates made those promises and won.

“There is the appearance, obviously, of corruption. There’s a lack of trust – I believe that we all see it – a lack of trust that the people have in how the processes unfold here at the State Capitol, at the federal level as well,” said Kendrick.  “The bill before you, make a strong argument that it’s an aggressive and comprehensive anti-corruption, reform bill.”

Two key provisions would build on work already done by the House toward ethics reform that House Democrats say they want to take farther than earlier proposals.  One aims to ban gifts and monetary donations from lobbyists to elected officials.

Kirkwood Democrat Deb Lavender is carrying the Democrats’ version of a proposed gift ban, House Bill 212.  She told lawmakers her bill would be tougher than House Bill 60, passed two weeks ago by the House.

Kirkwood Democrat Deb Lavender is carrying the Democrats’ version of a proposed gift ban, House Bill 212.  She told lawmakers under House Bill 60, passed two weeks ago by the House, organizations could exploit a provision that lets them provide meals for legislators at events as long as all members of the General Assembly and all state lawmakers are invited.

      “I have been invited to a Bar Association Dinner in Kansas City.  I’ve now been invited to one in Jefferson City and I’ve been invited to one in St. Louis.  A year ago I was invited to the one in St. Louis,” said Lavender.  “So as the entire General Assembly has now been invited to all three events, and perhaps more, here is how the Missouri Bar Association is already working around a bill that has passed on our floor; how they can still take you out and buy a meal and report it to the General Assembly so there’s no individual accountability.”

The other provision proposes extending the prohibition on elected or appointed officials or legislators becoming lobbyists from six months to five years after their term has ended, and would apply that to certain legislative staff.  It is also found in House Bill 213, sponsored by Representative Joe Adams (D-University City).

“This is what [Governor Eric Greitens] suggested in his campaign as he was running for the office, head of the state, so basically using his words,” said Adams.

Other provisions in HB 217 propose prohibiting any candidates’ committees from transferring their funds to their candidate’s family members; requiring former candidates to dissolve their candidate committees; and letting the Missouri Ethics Commission prosecute criminal cases and initiate civil cases if the state Attorney General declines to pursue either regarding an alleged ethics violation.  Those provisions are found in House Bill 214 (Tracy McCreery), House Bill 215 (Mark Ellebracht), House Bill 216 (Crystal Quade), respectively.

Representative Shamed Dogan (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Shamed Dogan (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Republicans have their own proposals to further reform Missouri ethics laws.  Ballwin Representative Shamed Dogan wants to ban gifts from lobbyists to local government officials.

Dogan said such officials are held to a much lower standard than legislators.

“I was an alderman in my city before being elected to this position, and we had a trash contract that was before our city.  I subsequently found out, after we’d passed this trash contract on a no-bid basis, that our City Administrator had been lobbied by that trash company by taking him to game seven of the World Series in 2011,” said Dogan of his proposal, House Bill 229.

Republican Tom Hurst (Meta) presented House Bill 150, which would exempt individuals not paid to lobby from having to register or report as a lobbyist.

Hurst said he wants members of the public to know that they can talk to elected officials about issues that concern them without having to file as a lobbyist, and without fear of being prosecuted for failing to file.

“The gray area tends to make people that I talk to wary about what they think happens in this Capitol and what they can do, legally, without getting in any trouble,” said Hurst.

Republican Jean Evans said the bill could raise more issues.

“So what’s to keep someone who’s not registered as a lobbyist, who’s not paid, from, say, giving lavish gifts to a legislator that’s not being reported in order to affect some sort of change in legislation or in order to, say, perhaps influence a decision on procurement whether it’s at the state or local level?” asked Evans.

The committee has not voted on any of those bills.

House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) and other legislative leaders have said ethics reforms would continue to be a priority in the 2017 session.