Candidates differ on role of attorney general in prosecuting local cases

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The three candidates running for Missouri attorney general in the Nov. 3 election agree the office should have some role in prosecuting local cases when local prosecutors request help.

The Missouri Attorney General's Office acts as special prosecutor when local prosecutors request aid and handles criminal appeals.

Republican incumbent Eric Schmitt has been serving as attorney general since 2019, after Gov. Mike Parson chose him to take over after then-Attorney General Josh Hawley's election to the U.S. Senate in 2018.

"We have a vital role in prosecuting local cases including our Special Prosecutions Unit, which is routinely called on to prosecute some of the toughest cases all across the state," Schmitt said. "I personally was involved in obtaining a murder conviction earlier this year and providing justice for the victims' family and friends. The victim, who emigrated to Missouri, was murdered while working at a convenient store to help bring his wife and children to the United States."

Democrat Rich Finneran served as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. attorney in St. Louis from 2010-17.

Finneran believes the attorney general should work collaboratively with local prosecutors to provide the resources to successfully prosecute cases.

"In rare cases, this means that the attorney general's office may take over the prosecution all together - but only if the local prosecutor requests that or has a conflict of interest," Finneran said. "In other cases, the attorney general can offer investigative resources and staff support. A collaborative process will lead to better, more thoughtful, and more successful prosecutions."

Libertarian Kevin Babcock is a self-employed attorney who served as a public defender in Ava from 2009-14.

"The attorney general's office should step in when there is a conflict of interest with a particular case or when a local prosecutor requests assistance," Babcock said.

The candidates' opinions differ on a matter discussed during the recent special legislative session to address violent crime in Missouri.

Gov. Mike Parson proposed that the state attorney general should have more authority to intervene in murder prosecution cases in St. Louis, but legislators ultimately didn't pass that measure.

Opponents of the measure claimed the move jeopardized the sovereignty of elected prosecuting attorneys. Supporters said St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner needed the help, even though she had not requested it, as her office was understaffed.

Some lawmakers believed the proposal was intended to attack Gardner after she moved forward with the prosecution of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who had stood outside their St. Louis home earlier this summer and brandished semi-automatic weapons as protesters marched by. The couple was later indicted by a grand jury on charges of unlawful use of weapons and tampering with evidence, which they have pleaded not guilty to.

Schmitt spoke in favor of the Parson proposal, saying: "I am simply not willing to sit back and let our cities and citizens be victims to this unprecedented violent crime. This is why we launched the Safer Street Initiative to gain jurisdiction with the feds, resulting in over 350 charges filed, including car jackings resulting in death, drug distribution, witness tampering, assault of a law enforcement officer and more."

Both Finneran and Babcock oppose the measure.

"Concurrent jurisdiction is just another word for redundant jurisdiction," Finneran said. "I oppose any effort to strip local prosecutors of their authority to prosecute cases. I agreed with the bipartisan statement released by the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and I support empowering local prosecutors to fight violent crime in Missouri based on the needs of their communities. Starting turf wars is not going to make anyone safer. We should be working together to fight crime, not fighting among ourselves over who gets to prosecute a case."

Babcock sees no reason to make any changes, "other than for partisan politics," he said. "Therefore, I would continue the current policies."


Representing Missouri's citizens

The Missouri Attorney General's Office handles thousands of matters at any given time, ranging from enforcement of environmental laws to processing of consumer complaints, including complaints about business practices, no-call lists, public corruption and violation of the Sunshine Law.

Schmitt said, while he has been in office, there has been an expansion of the role of the attorney general in educating local governments on the Sunshine Law, which he believes has improved response time to Sunshine Law requests.

"We added transparency to the process, and we have never flinched in bringing enforcement actions when warranted," Schmitt said. "We have sued telemarketers and others for no-call list violations. During the pandemic, we have taken action against medical supply chain price gouging to ensure the public has ready access to health and medical supplies to contain the public spread of this virus."

Finneran focused on white collar criminal fraud while working in the U.S. Attorney's Office. If elected, he said, any citizen who contacts the attorney general would have their complaint heard by a staff attorney to determine if any action should be taken.

"Wherever possible, my office would put protections in place to ensure that any discussions with whistleblowers will be kept confidential in order to ensure the integrity of any subsequent investigation," Finneran said. "As a federal prosecutor, I handled dozens of covert investigations based upon information from concerned citizens, and I am sensitive to the need to protect the privacy of witnesses who come forward to assist law enforcement."

Babcock feels technology is making it easier for "shady businesses" to take advantage of Missouri citizens and the attorney general needs to better address this.

"The current no-call list, while a good idea in theory, has not been effective," Babcock said. "The attorney general's office needs to invest in technology to keep a step ahead of the crooks because criminals will not respect no-call lists or any other law if there is no enforcement mechanism."