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Senators discuss options without active Ethics Commission

Senators discuss options without active Ethics Commission

March 16th, 2018 by Bob Watson in Missouri News

The Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City is shown here on Feb. 21, 2018. Phase 2 of construction on the Capitol was set to begin in March 2018.

Photo by Mark Wilson /News Tribune.

As of today, Missouri's six-member Ethics Commission can't take official actions because it has only three members.

Under state law, commissioners serve specific four-year terms, with half the commission replaced every two years.

Those terms ended March 15 — so Thursday was the last day for Bill Deeken, of Jefferson City, a former state representative and former Cole County clerk, and two others.

So far, Gov. Eric Greitens hasn't nominated anyone to succeed those three now-former commissioners.

"We do believe we should have had a letter (of appointments) sometime in February," Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, told reporters Thursday afternoon. "We would hope it's not postponed any longer than necessary.

"I can't pull (those nominations) out of the air myself — or I would."

Parker Briden, the governor's spokesman, told the News Tribune: "We expect that all of our appointments will be made before the (commission's) next meeting, ensuring that they are able to conduct all business.

"Right now, we are just waiting on nominations from political party committees."

Unlike most other board and commission members in the state — who can continue serving until their successors have been appointed — the Ethics commissioners lose their authority at the end of their four-year terms.

And they can't be reappointed.

State law sets out a detailed procedure for making appointments to the commission, starting with nominations from the congressional district committees of the two political parties getting the most votes for governor in the last election.

The three commissioners whose terms expired Thursday represented the 3rd, 5th and 7th congressional districts, so nominations from the district committees in the state's odd-numbered districts were to be sent to Greitens at least 90 days before the expiration of the term, according to state law.

But complicating the lawmakers' discussion Thursday was this week's complaint to the commission by former Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Roy Temple, who accused Greitens of misleading the commission last year about how a donor list from his charity, The Mission Continues, ended up with his political campaign.

The commission levied a $1,000 fine in that case, requiring the governor to pay only $100 unless there were other issues over the next two years.

Temple asked for the commission to refer the case to a prosecutor.

During Thursday's Senate debate, Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, said Greitens' failure to nominate commissioners before now puts the governor in the position of being "the accused" and appointing "the judge" in his case.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, told reporters: "That's why the Senate has 'advice and consent' (powers). That's why you have to make sure that, as those folks are appointed, that we do as much due diligence as possible so we make sure (the people we put on there) are fair and equitable."

Dixon later said: "It smacks of impropriety, even with advice and consent of the Senate.

"And I'm concerned that there would be a delay until May 19 (after the General Assembly ends), to then appoint someone who constitutionally could act with all legal power until we come back in January."

Dixon, who chairs the Senate's Judiciary Committee, said he would spend part of his spring break researching to see if the Senate has other options.

Meanwhile, Ethics Commission Executive Director James Klahr said Thursday state laws prohibit him and the commissioners "from commenting on specific complaints that may be filed with the commission."

He explained state law "provides that 'all investigations by the executive director of an alleged violation shall be strictly confidential with the exception of notification of the commission and the complainant or the person under investigation.'"

Klahr said, even without a quorum, the law allows him and the staff to do initial investigative work when a complaint is filed.

"Our staff will proceed as we would typically proceed in reviewing an incoming complaint," he said, "determining if the commission has jurisdiction to investigate and, if the commission does have authority to investigate, will then conduct an investigation."