The Missouri Legislature has suffered a major black eye in recent months with the conviction of three members of the General Assembly on felony charges of public misconduct, and the filing of assault charges against the former Speaker of the House. Rumors continue to float around the Capitol
that continuing federal investigations are under way with regard to legislative conduct that may or may not have substance.
In the midst of this unsettling backdrop, House and Senate leaders are proposing bills to strengthen Missouri's laws governing legislative conduct, lobbyist activity, and election campaigns. House Speaker Ron Richard has appointed a special committee on Government Accountability and Ethics Reform. Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields has declared his intention to put an end to "even the appearance of pay-to-play politics."
State statutes regulating government ethics have not been changed in any substantial way since 1991. That's when
legislation co-sponsored by yours truly was adopted by the Missouri Legislature and signed into law by then Governor John Ashcroft. That law toughened state statutes on conflicts of interest, and created the Missouri Ethics Commission as a watchdog over the decision-making conduct of elected
officials in state and local government.
Unfortunately, the Ethics Commission has never had the resources or the muscle to effectively monitor and prosecute political corruption and ethical misconduct. Due to no fault of their own, the Ethics Commission and its staff have become mired in enforcing campaign finance and financial disclosure reporting requirements, and not enough attention has been given to corrupt practices in the behavior of government itself.
The most significant bill filed this year in that respect has been introduced by Senator Shields
. It would create an Office of Independent Investigation within the Ethics
Commission to investigate potential ethics violations and initiate ethics complaints.
"By creating this office, we would bring a new level of accountability to Missouri," Senator Shields says. "Currently, it is up to citizens to file complaints, but this would mean we would have a full-time independent office dedicated solely to investigating and filing ethics complaints."
Shields' bill would also place a ban on donations to the campaign committees of legislators or of the Governor during the legislative session. "We should work to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest, and you can't do that if you continue to allow campaign contributions while the Legislature is in session." Similar proposals to ban contributions during session have run into constitutional challenges in the past.
In the House, legislation has been filed on a bipartisan basis by Representatives Tim Flook of Liberty and Jason Kander of Kansas City. It would create the crime of
obstruction of an ethics investigation. This is similar to the federal crime of obstruction of justice, which is the manner in which the FBI often succeeds in prosecuting cases of government corruption.
House Majority Leader Steve Tilley of Perryville has introduced a comprehensive ethics proposal that contains a number of provisions. Tilley's bill would ban all lobbyist gifts and meals to individual members of the Legislature; prohibit political donations to the Governor by individuals seeking appointments or executive actions; and bans legislators from serving as political consultants.
"Our intention is to set an ethical standard that all elected state officials will be proud to abide by and at the same time let them re-establish the trust Missouri's citizens should expect from their representatives," Tilley says.
Governor Jay Nixon
has come forward with his own ethics reform suggestions. Foremost among them is the
restoration of campaign finance limits, which were repealed by the Missouri Legislature in 2008. "Missouri voters have spoken loudly and clearly that they want control over the influence of money in politics," the Governor says. House Minority Leader Paul LeVota of Independence has proposed legislation to re-establish limits on campaign donations.
I work with legislators year round in efforts to advance family-friendly public policy. I can tell you that most of them are honorable men and women doing an honest job. Yet some are lured by the power and prestige of the office to compromise their principles. Some find it difficult to resist the opportunities to abuse the public trust for their personal benefit.
The Missouri Legislature rarely takes seriously efforts to improve public ethics laws. The current cloud over the General Assembly, and the heightened level of public
discontent with the political process, makes this legislative session one where the climate is right for serious change.
While it is essential to have effective and meaningful laws to penalize and deter dishonest behavior in public life, we all know that there is only one way to ensure that a public official behaves in selfless and honorable fashion: a heart that is right with God. We urge you to pray for your state representative and state senator and all the legislators during the current session that they will heed the Biblical call in the Book of Micah (6:8): "What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.