Sunshine Week (March 10-16) celebrates citizen participation in government while underscoring the necessity of government transparency. Each day this week, we’ll take you behind the scenes to show you how Watchdog reporters use publicly available documents and hard work to reveal how government really works. — Editors
By Johnny Kampis | Missouri Watchdog
ST. LOUIS – Ethics reforms were all the rage among Missouri lawmakers after the November elections.
Both Democrats and Republicans revealed plans to push bills that would clean up the political system, from requiring political nonprofits to disclose their donors to imposing greater restrictions on former legislators now serving as lobbyists.
One proposal would limit to $1,000 the value of gifts that lobbyists could give to lawmakers and their families in a single year.
I was curious how many lawmakers would have exceeded that limit in 2012 if that bill had already been made law.
That information was a few mouse clicks away. Lobbyists must report the gifts they give to public officials to the Missouri Ethics Commission, which aggregates the data on its website.
On this handy page you can look up how much each legislator, judge, statewide office holder and local elected official accepted in lobbyists’ gifts each month and year for themselves and their families.
Finding the data was the easy part. Understanding it took some work, much like the archaeologist who spends 99 percent of his time with his nose in a book instead of, say, tiptoeing around puff adders to find the Ark of the Covenant.
I researched the records for all 34 senators and 163 representatives for 2012, which allowed me to highlight those accepting the most freebies and paint an overall picture of the situation.
I also researched previous years to uncover which lawmakers are serial moochers.
In 2012, almost three quarters of Missouri senators and nearly half of the representatives exceeded the proposed $1,000 cap. Many of the lawmakers pushing the reforms fed heartily at the trough.
That included House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, who pushed hard against Republicans in announcing the legislation in November. Hummel accepted $1,203 in lobbyist gifts last year, not only free meals but also Cardinals tickets and a tie. Lobbyists reported showering Hummel with a similar dollar amount of freebies in past years.
Paul LeVota, D-Independence, introduced a companion bill in the Senate that imposes political campaign contribution limits, but doesn’t include the other reforms, including the lobbyist gift cap. He accepted more than $5,000 annually in gifts when he previously served in the House, including a plethora of tickets to the Kansas City Chiefs, a Mannheim Steamroller concert and University of Missouri basketball games.
Plenty of Republicans were among the top takers in 2012, too.
I found that the “leaderboard” comprised Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City ($9,656.40), Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City ($6,464.93), Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis ($5,238.16), Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles ($4,960.52) and Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country ($4,873.43).
The Democrats’ House ethics reform bill has stagnated, with no action taken after a second reading Jan. 10. Republicans have focused their attention more on issues like Medicaid reform, education spending and accountability and right-to-work legislation.
While working on an update, I found that LeVota has already received nearly $1,100 in gifts in the first month of the 2013 Missouri General Assembly session, while Colona took in nearly $500.
It would appear these records will provide fodder for yet more do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do stories.
Johnny Kampis is bureau chief at Missouri Watchdog. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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