Ambiguity restored to finance report

Attorney General Chris Koster raised more than a half-million dollars this past quarter, thanks to several five-figure contributions routed his way from some of the nation’s biggest businesses — at least that’s how it initially appeared on finance reports from the Democratic Attorneys General Association.

Those contribution reports have since been changed to create more ambiguity about the original source of the money.

The case highlights some quirky aspects of campaign finance laws.

In Missouri, any person, business or group can give as much money as they want to any candidate or political committee. Unlike many other states, there are no campaign contribution limits in the Show-Me State. The same is true under federal law for contributors to political 527 committees (named for the section of tax code under which they are authorized).

Missouri’s Republican legislative leaders have championed these unlimited donations. They contend that the lack of limits should make it easier for the public to see the source of the money on campaign finance reports, by removing an incentive for rich donors to funnel cash via multiple smaller checks through various obscurely named committees.

Yet some cloudiness has remained when it comes to publicly available information.

For example, Gov. Jay Nixon received $500,000 this past quarter from the Democratic Governors Association. That fact is reported both on forms filed by Nixon with the Missouri Ethics Commission and filed by the governors’ organization with the Internal Revenue Service. The Democratic Governors Association reported receiving a total of more than $9.4 million this past quarter, including checks from Missouri companies such as Centene, Cerner, HNTB, Monsanto and Anheuser-Busch. But it’s impossible to conclude the money from those Missouri businesses was transferred to Nixon, because the finance reports show no earmarks of specific contributions for specific governor’s races.

Many of those same Missouri businesses also contributed to the Republican Governors Association. And the same ambiguity would apply if the Republican group routed a portion of its money to a GOP candidate challenging Nixon.

Yet it recently seemed as if the Democratic Attorneys General Association had lifted that shroud of ambiguity when it filed a mandatory state report of contributions in excess of $5,000.

On June 29, the Missouri treasurer for the Democratic Attorneys General Association reported receiving contributions ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 from 10 specific entities — Altria, Anheuser-Busch, Pfizer, Zeneca, Visa, Coca-Cola, DuPont, Facebook, LeadsOnline and the Recording Industry Association of America. Koster, meanwhile, reported receiving $300,000 from the Democratic Attorneys General Association-Missouri. It appeared that, for once, specific contributions to a national political group could be linked to a specific candidate.

But the Missouri affiliate of the Democratic Attorneys General Association subsequently changed its report to state that it had received $300,000 from the national association based in Denver, with no indication as to the original donors.

Travis Berry, the executive director of the Democratic Attorneys General Association Inc., said the group originally received bad advice from its legal counsel about Missouri’s laws — wrongly concluding that it had to identify an original source for the money. So he said the group scanned the list of its most recent national contributions and simply picked some to place on the Missouri report.

In fact, if contributions to a national group are earmarked for a specific candidate or committee, then Missouri law states that the original source of the money should be reported, said Julie Allen, the executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission.

But Berry said the Democratic Attorneys General Association had not received any money actually earmarked for Koster’s campaign or its Missouri affiliate. He said the law expressly prohibits the group from doing so.

“There is an absolute understanding that there is no earmarking,” Berry said. “If you make a contribution to DAGA Inc., you are making a contribution for us to spend in whatever way we deem appropriate under the laws of the states.”

And that’s how it came to be that ambiguity was restored to what originally appeared to be a more detailed accounting of the dollars flowing to a Missouri candidate. All for the sake of complying with the law.

David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995.

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