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Monitoring state 'ethics'

January 12, 2015 at 4:00 a.m. | Updated January 12, 2015 at 4:00 a.m.

"Ethics" is a word that keeps popping up at the Missouri Capitol these days, as lawmakers talk about the 2015 General Assembly's priorities.

But state Ethics Commission Director James Klahr said last week he doesn't know what that means for the commission and its staff.

"The bigger policy questions they're talking about are "revolving door issues,' and "should we have campaign finance limits?'" he noted last week. "Those are all policy issues that, I think, our commissioners don't think it's appropriate for us to be involved in directly."

He said he'll let lawmakers know what their ideas mean to the commission's operations, but that policy issues of what the commission should, or shouldn't, be doing are up to the lawmakers and Gov. Jay Nixon.

Klahr has been the commission's executive director since September 2013.

"I certainly would admit - I didn't come into this job as an expert in the ethics laws, by any means," he explained. "But, I thought it was a good organization and a good opportunity for me to do something different."

He wants to see more efforts to educate the public about the commission, because many Missourians may not know the agency as well as Klahr and his staff would like.

"We are first, and foremost, a reporting agency," he said. "We accept reports - most notably the campaign finance reports that the public, hopefully, is aware of, that they can find on our website."

The mid-January Quarterly Reports, covering fundraising and expenditures of the last three months of 2014, are due by 5 p.m. Thursday and, once filed, can be seen at www.mec.mo.gov.

"What the public may not know," Klahr added, "is that, in addition to those reports, many officeholders have to file an annual personal finance disclosure - so that the public knows what their different assets might be, or their other stock holdings."

Those reports also are available to the public - but through a "Sunshine Law" request, since they are not automatically placed online like the campaign finance reports.

Searches are anonymous - the commission counts the number of visits to the website, but doesn't track who's making the request nor what they searched for.

A St. Louis County native, Klahr left Missouri to go to college. After graduating from Duke University in 1990, he returned to the state and spent a year with the Missouri Public Interest Research Group, "and did some door-to-door campaigning types of things," as well as bringing initiative petitions to Jefferson City a couple of times.

"I studied public policy when I was in college, so I always had an interest in government generally," Klahr said. "When I was in law school, I did an internship with the AARP and did a little bit of work in the Georgia General Assembly - and that kind of gave me a taste of what it might be like to do some work in state government."

He went to Atlanta for law school in 1991, graduated in 1994 and moved to Jefferson City in November 1994 as a staff attorney for Senate Research. He stayed in that position "just under three years," then became an assistant attorney general in late-summer 1997.

But during that time, he married a Versailles-area native who was a fiscal analyst for the Legislative Oversight Committee - and they now have been married 16 years.

When Attorney General Jay Nixon became governor in 2009, Klahr said, "I submitted an application and had the opportunity to become a legislative liaison for the Department of Public Safety."

That job included lobbying lawmakers, and ended when he took the Ethics job.

Klahr already has served almost one-fourth of the six years that state law allows him to have as the commission's head. And the commissioners who hired him can serve only one, four-year term, with no more than one commissioner from each congressional district.

For instance, former Cole County Clerk and state Rep. Bill Deeken represents the Third District, and his term runs through March 15, 2018.

Commissioners consider complaints about candidates' or lobbyists' violations of the state's campaign finance and conflict-of-interest laws - as long as someone else files the complaint. With some limited exceptions, the commission has no authority to start its own investigations.

Once the commission takes an action on a complaint, the action is posted on the website, at www.mec.mo.gov/EthicsWeb/Compliance/Compliance_CASearch.aspx.

"Of course, all the materials related to it remain confidential," Klahr said. "We cannot disclose our investigative file, or anything like that."

He and his wife, Frances, have adopted a couple of boys - now 11, but not twins - from Guatemala.

Fatherhood has led to coaching and a Cub Scout leader's job, "which has been very enjoyable, just getting to know the kids and doing different activities with them," he said.

He's been active at First Methodist Church, including service on a foundation board that was "able to put together some scholarships for our students (and) do some scholarships for different projects within the church."

He also is working with the Downtown Rotary Club on a project to bring Missouri high school students to the Capitol in March.

As people consider his current job, his previous work and whatever comes next, Klahr said: "I hope that people think I was fair, that I was approachable - and that (I gave) an honest response and help in their issue."

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