Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Lobbyist Money Help
By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL143.PRB - The Risk Politicians Take«MDNM»
The New York Times story highlighting Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster in an investigative report on special interest money reminds me of another Missouri attorney general who paid a steep price after news stories involving financial behavior -- Bill Webster.
The New York Times story cited instances in which Koster had dropped investigations into companies that had contributed to the Democratic attorney general.
As for Webster, his political future began to unravel after stories were published that his office awarded lucrative state contracts to attorneys who contributed to Webster's campaign.
The lawyers were hired to represent the state in claims made to the Second Injury Fund that provides health coverage for workers with previous injuries.
Until that story broke, the Southwest Missouri Republican seemed to be on the fast track in Missouri politics.
Webster was smart, young, handsome and charismatic.
His father, Dick Webster, had been one of the most influential members of the state Senate. So his son had a ring-side seat to learn how government and politics really worked.
As the state's chief lawyer, Webster gained national attention for his arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in cases involving abortion and right-to-die.
He seemed assured of moving to the governor's mansion in 1992.
But during the campaign, Webster could not overcome continuing reports of a federal criminal investigation into those contributions from lawyers his office had hired.
Webster's resulting defeat was one of the many times I've wondered why promising politicians are willing to take such risks with special interest money when, often, the amounts are not all that large.
Some of it, I think, is that there's a culture in this town that it's OK for a public official to take money from folks who are affected by the official's governmental decisions.
It's done all the time. And the longer a politician stays around this place watching the flow of special interest money, the greater the temptation. Taking the cash begins to take on the appearance of normalcy.
Besides, the law has some wiggle room.
State law does not make it a crime for a an elected official to take special interest money unless there is an agreement that the money is buying government action.
That was demonstrated to me in 1970 with the criminal case against State Treasurer Bill Robinson. The case involved contributions made to Robinson by an officer of a bank that subsequently got low-interest state deposits from the state treasurer.
But Robinson escaped conviction in state court because there was no proof of an actual agreement as to what the money was buying. Maybe it really was just a "gift" with no strings attached.
But there is far less safety of ambiguity when federal prosecutors get involved. They can be relentless and have sweeping powers under federal corruption and conspiracy laws.
Missouri has seen extensive federal investigations into special interest money given to public officials for which there was no proof of an explicit agreement.
House Speaker Bob Griffin went to federal prison without any such proof.
Without such proof, House Speaker Rod Jetton endured months of a federal investigation into a contribution from the porn industry and action killing legislation to regulate the industry.
As for Webster, he was not as fortunate. Shortly after his unsuccessful campaign for governor, he was handed a two-year sentence on federal corruption charges.
But the irony was that the crime for which he went to federal prison did not directly involve the issue of those news stories that had so hobbled his political campaign.
Instead, the Carthage Republican pled guilty to charges involving illegal use of government resources for personal and campaign purposes. One of the criminal counts included using his state-salaried staff to babysit his children.
Small potatoes for what led to a two year prison sentence and ended one of the more promising political futures in recent Missouri history.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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