ST. LOUIS -- Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon will return more than $19,000 in donations to his gubernatorial campaign that came indirectly from Ameren Corp., the utility he is investigating over the Taum Sauk reservoir collapse.
Nixon's campaign treasurer Craig Hosmer said returning the money doesn't mean Nixon was wrong to accept it. He said Nixon wants to eliminate any appearance of a conflict of interest as he investigates Ameren.
Nixon declined to comment on the matter Thursday.
The contributions raised concerns at the Missouri Department of Natural Resource. With millions of dollars in legal claims at stake, director Doyle Childers formally requested twice Wednesday that Nixon recuse himself from the investigation. Nixon refused.
Childers said Thursday he still wants Nixon to hand over the investigation to an outside prosecutor, in spite of returning the contributions.
"I just don't trust him," Childers said. "I don't see anything that's changed except he's got his hand caught in the cookie jar. At first he said there's no cookie jar. And now he said, 'I'll put all the cookies back."'
Gov. Matt Blunt has said he is concerned with Nixon's conduct. Nixon is the front-runner to be the Democratic opponent against the Republican incumbent in the 2008 gubernatorial race. Blunt's office didn't return messages seeking comment Thursday.
Nixon told The Associated Press in April he would soon take legal action against Ameren. In an interview last week, Nixon said he's backed off of filing litigation and is in "complicated discussions" with Ameren. The company has refused to say if it is trying to negotiate a settlement with Nixon.
Nixon was assigned as a special prosecutor in the Taum Sauk case, giving him sole legal authority to file criminal charges against the company. He also is authorized to sue the company on behalf of the state.
Childers said he is still considering what to do now that Nixon has refused to hand over the Taum Sauk investigation. One option would be sending DNR's own lawyers to court to work alongside Nixon's, Childers said.
In an e-mailed statement to The Associated Press on Thursday, the Nixon for Governor campaign said it will return $19,100 to the four Democratic committees that donated the money, all on March 31.
Art Martin, treasurer of two of the four campaign finance committees that donated the money to Nixon's campaign said the money would now be spent elsewhere.
"We thought the money would have been well spent on Nixon's campaign, but we'll be willing to use it for other worthy Democrats," Martin said.
Ameren's Taum Sauk hydroelectric plant collapsed on Dec. 14, sending more than 1 billion gallons of water through Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park and injuring the park superintendent, his wife and three young children.
Nixon launched his investigation into Ameren immediately after the collapse, his spokesman John Fougere said.
Federal investigators said in a report last month that Ameren knew of critical problems at Taum Sauk for months before the collapse and delayed repairs that might have prevented the collapse.
Between January and March, Ameren gave $5,000 each to the four Democratic groups -- three St. Louis County Democratic legislative committees and the Lincoln County Democratic Central Committee. None of the groups had $5,000 on hand before Ameren's donation arrived.
Three of the groups donated $4,800 each to Nixon's campaign; the other gave $4,700.
Thomas Burkemper, head of the Lincoln County committee, said he's disappointed with Nixon's decision to return the contribution.
"I think he ought to keep it," Burkemper said. "Nixon would never sell out for $19,000. It doesn't amount to anything."