The Case for Ethics Reform in Missouri
Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander explains why he wants to see tighter controls of campaign contributions and lobbyist gifts.
The April issue of Governing features Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander and his efforts to strengthen state laws related to ethics and campaign finance. Below is a transcript from an interview with Kander in February about ethics reform and his experience as the youngest statewide elected official in country. The conversation transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
What led you to make ethics legislation a focus of your political career?
When I was in the Army in Afghanistan, I was an intelligence officer and my job was to do anti-corruption investigations within the Afghan government -- basically figure out which bad guys over there were pretending to be good guys. When I came home and ran for the state legislature, I found out there was plenty of anti-corruption work to do in Jefferson City, too.
Before becoming Secretary of State, what were the some of the bills related to ethics reform that you sponsored in the legislature?
The proposal that we have put forward this year, the legislation that Rep. Kevin McManus filed on my behalf, is the culmination of the work I did in the house. For instance, in 2010 I worked with a Republican representative named Tim Flook, and we passed the first bipartisan ethics reforms in Missouri in about a generation. Because of a technicality and not on the merits of the legislation, the Supreme Court struck that down, so we’re right back at square one. That had a lot of the provisions that this legislation has, for instance, outlawing the practice of political money laundering where folks will make a contribution to one committee and they have it eventually reach another through a process that makes it very difficult to find the original source.
Another important piece of that legislation was the provision that made it against the law to obstruct an Ethics Commission investigation. This is exhibit A for how weak Missouri ethics laws really are. If you are investigated by the Federal Election Commission in a campaign for federal office and you lie to an election commission, you can go to jail for that. But if you do that in a Missouri Ethics Commission investigation, the most likely result is that you’re going to get out of trouble because there is absolutely no law against obstructing or lying in an investigation by the state ethics commission.
How are you pitching these reforms this year to Republicans and have you found any conservative allies on the issue?
This is an issue that really isn’t and shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It’s not a Democratic problem or a Republican problem. It’s a Missouri problem. We have the worst campaign finance and ethics laws in the country. The vast majority of Missourians care greatly about this issue and would like to see the legislature address it. Really, the only place in Missouri where this is a controversial issue is in the state capitol which means it’s really only controversial in one building in our state. I just remind the legislators of both parties that this is something that the public expects expects of all of us, to get this done.
You mentioned that you found a Republican partner for your ethics legislation in the past. Have you found any Republican partners this time around?
This is really a bipartisan bill because it encompasses proposals that come from both sides of the aisle. For instance, there are parts of this bill that have modifications to the lobbying laws from Sen. John Lamping, a Republican from St. Louis County. It has proposals dealing with campaign finance from Scott Rupp, a Republican from St. Charles County. Other pieces come from Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a Democrat from St. Louis city.
Let’s get into some more of the specific provisions in the bill. Why would the state need a special enforcement fund for the ethics commission?
By law, right now the Missouri Ethics Commission has to make funding requests every year from the same legislators who they regulate. One of the advantages to having an enforcement fund is that you get closer to a day where the ethics commission is no longer having to ask for funding from the people that they’re tasked with policing. The other piece of it is that when you are going to put in new responsibilities for the ethics commission, that means they are possibly going to need additional resources. By creating a system where 50 percent of the fines can go toward this fund and then saying that additional resources must go to new work that the ethics commission does -- rather than replacing exist funds -- you’re giving them the opportunity to fully enforce the new responsibilities.
One of the provisions allows the executive director to conduct an independent investigation without receipt of a complaint. He doesn’t have that power under current law?
That’s correct. When you look at the majority of what we have proposed, it would fall under the category of things that most Missourians would assume would already be law. They’re common sense changes. When you look at Missouri law, it’s sometimes surprising how lax ethics and campaign finance laws actually are and that’s a great example.
Are there other examples that you like to highlight where Missouri deviates from the norm?
We are the only state in the entire country that has the combination of allowing unlimited lobbyist gifts to legislators and unlimited campaign contributions.
With regards to the suggested contribution limits in the bill, are you drawing from any specific states’ current contribution limits?
We drew from a couple places. One, we took that from some legislation that had already been proposed in the state senate. Two, the top limit, $2,600 for statewide office, matches the federal limit. The thinking is that if that’s the limit for a U.S. Senate race, then that should also be a limit for statewide offices.
Are there certain aspects of the bill that you think will pass? Which parts have the most bipartisan support?
I respect the legislative process. I’m a member of the executive branch now, so it’s probably not my place to speak to which provisions are most popular in the house or senate. What I do think is that there are basically major tenets that we should be focused on. That is, effective and enforceable campaign contribution limits, placing more appropriate distance between lawmakers and lobbyists, and enabling the Missouri Ethics Commission to enforce new laws.
As far as the strength of certain provisions over others, in terms of the popularity within the legislature, I am realistic about the fact that it is not easy to get any legislative body to police itself. There is no interest group in Jefferson City called Big Ethics. Carrying the water of Big Ethics is not going to ensure your re-election via huge campaign contributions. For that reason, there are people who think it’s an uphill battle. But I think that it is so plainly obvious and such a mandate from the people of Missouri to get it done, that that’s absolutely what should happen.
At 32, you are currently the youngest statewide elected official. As you were campaigning for this office, did you see any advantages in terms of being a young candidate?
I suppose it was something that allowed me to connect with younger voters and campaign volunteers. But to be honest, I did not know that if I won, I was going to be the youngest statewide elected official. I found that out from a Huffington Post article after I was elected. As you know, it doesn’t give me any special powers.
It’s a nice distinction. I’m honored that someone noticed that. I would still note that on the campaign trail what would happen more often, and what’s happened in every office that I’ve campaigned for, is that someone would see me and mistake me for the advance staff for the candidate. People would say to me, “you’re pretty young. Do you think you can handle this responsibility?” Sometimes they were joking and sometimes they were not. My answer was always the same: I’ve led American soldiers into a combat zone before and I feel very prepared for this job.