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Stung By N.Y. Times, Koster Announces Personal Campaign-Finance Limits

Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

To repair his reputation, Missouri Attorney Chris Koster has announced self-imposed guidelines on what campaign donations he will accept as he runs his office while also running for governor in 2016.

In a statement, Koster said he was advancing “sweeping new transparency measures’’ that he acknowledged were intended to address some conflict-of-interest accusations that have been leveled against him.

But he also suggested that the General Assembly consider imposing similar campaign limits on other public officials.

His key restrictions include:

  • No donations from individuals or entities involved in cases “currently pending” before the attorney general’s office, or that “have been been resolved in the past 90 days.”
  • No donations “from lobbyists, attorneys and their law firms’’ who represent those individuals or entities.
  • No donations from anyone employed by Koster’s office, either as staff or as a contract worker.

Koster said in a statement that he also will “no longer accept gifts of any value from registered lobbyists.”
Koster is not imposing any limits on the size of his campaign contributions; he maintains that campaign-donation limits don't work.

Koster said in a statement that he recognized “contributions are part of the political process and there is no perfect campaign finance system.  My goal is to put in place a contribution policy that increases confidence in the electoral process.”

Koster wrote that his new campaign-donation practices will go into effect immediately. He is asking all future donors to attest to a written declaration that states:

“To the best of my knowledge:

·      Neither I personally nor any entity which I control has litigation presently pending against the MO Attorney General’s office nor has had such litigation resolved by that office within the last 90 days;

·      I am not a lawyer, a law firm that employs a lawyer, or a registered lobbyist, personally engaged in current litigation against the MO Attorney General’s office, nor have I represented any entity engaged in such litigation in the past 90 days;

·      I am not a current employee or contract employee of the MO Attorney General’s office, nor have I been so employed in the past 90 days.”

The declaration will be something that donors will sign. An online version will simply require a check mark.

Koster’s new self-imposed policy comes amid continued criticisms of his campaign practices, in the wake of the Times’ story that implied a link between how his office has handled some high-profile legal cases and his highly successful campaign-donation operation.

Koster has denied any alleged improprieties.  Even so, outgoing Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, recently announced a special committee to examine Koster’s actions as attorney general and as a candidate.

In reply to emailed questions from  St. Louis Public Radio, Koster replied:

"The New York Times articlehighlighted the issue of perceptions relating to campaign contributions to public officials, including attorneys general. When a problem is focused in this way, most any public servant wants to solve it.  Our goal with this new policy is to address these issues as fully and transparently as possible."

Legal scholars praise plan, modeled after  New York restrictions

Koster’s new policy is modeled after one already in place in New York, which applies to his counterpart, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.  But Koster says his own policy is stricter because it "also applies to lobbyists, lawyers and law firms directly involved in pending litigation. The New York policy does not."

"We have reviewed similar policies across the country, and we believe this is the strictest conflict-of-interest policy of any elected attorney general in the United States," he added.

Koster’s announcement included accolades from two prominent legal scholars who had apparently gotten an advance look at his plan.

Mike Wolff, dean of St. Louis University’s School of Law, and former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, said that Koster’s new campaign restrictions “substantially raise the bar for ethics in our state.  I hope other elected leaders will follow Koster’s example and adopt conflict-of-interest policies that increase confidence in our state’s political system.”

Dean R. Lawrence Dessem, professor of ethics at the University of Missouri School of Law, said in a statement, “By limiting campaign contributions from attorneys, clients, and lobbyists, these new rules positively address the appearance of governmental conflict-of-interest.”

Times story hit hard

Koster has acknowledged that his reputation took a hit with the New York Times story, published in late October,  that asserted that he and other state attorneys general were being unduly influenced by influential lobbyists and corporations to drop investigations or settle cases for lower amounts.  Those lobbyists and corporations often were campaign donors.

Koster, who has disputed some of the Times’ assertions, said that the story gave a false impression of his record against major corporations – notably Pfizer and AT&T – and made inaccurate and unfair accusations about his campaign practices.

A Republican-turned-Democrat, Koster has been far more successful at campaign fundraising than his likely GOP rivals for governor.  He also has become a major force within the Missouri Democratic Party.  He and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill have become the state party’s top donors and money-raisers.

But Koster has broken ranks with some Democrats, including Gov. Jay Nixon, who support restoring some sort of campaign-donation limits. The state had such limits from 1995-2008, when Republicans controlling the General Assembly voted to eliminate them, with the support of then-Gov. Matt Blunt.

Koster says that restricting the size of donations simply forces donors to find less transparent means to get their money to the campaigns or candidates they support.

However, he recently outlined some ethics proposals he supports, including:

  • A ban on lobbyist gifts
  • Restrictions on non-profit 501(c)(4) committees and their ability to advertise in Missouri
  • Expanding the reach of Missouri’s 48-hour reporting requirements on large donations.
Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.