Ethics commission reverses course on campaign contributions

Thursday, September 20, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Facing allegations they violated public meeting laws, Missouri ethics commissioners voted Wednesday to start from scratch in deciding how to implement a Supreme Court ruling reinstating campaign contribution limits.

Commissioners cited a Sunshine Law lawsuit by the Missouri Republican Party while choosing to rescind a decision made Sept. 11 to notify candidates they may have violated the retroactively reimposed contribution limits.

Instead, commissioners plan to start the decision-making process anew at their Oct. 4 meeting. Unlike last time, commissioners intend to take public comment before voting on what to do.

"We find ourselves in a mess, in my opinion," said commissioner Ken Legan, of Halfway, who made the motion essentially calling for a do-over. "We probably ought to rescind our actions of Sept. 11 -- not that we made a mistake, but because of things that have happened."

Added commissioner Michael Kilgore, of Kansas City: "I think we ought to take any allegation regarding violation of the Sunshine Law seriously, irrespective of whether or not we agree with those allegations."

The commission's action came a day after its lawyers appeared in Cole County Circuit Court to argue against a Republican Party request to impose a temporary restraining order preventing commissioners from carrying out their Sept. 11 motion.

Judge Richard Callahan had not decided by Wednesday whether to issue the restraining order.

But Republican Party attorney Robert Hess, who attended the ethics commission meeting, said the restraining order may not be necessary anymore.

Hess described Wednesday's decision as a vindication of the Republican Party's claims. But he said the party would have to evaluate whether to move forward with the rest of the lawsuit seeking penalties and attorneys fees for the alleged Sunshine Law violation at last week's meting.

The ethics commission is trying to decide how to enforce a Missouri Supreme Court ruling on July 19 striking down a law that had allowed unlimited campaign contributions since Jan. 1.

The Supreme Court indicated its ruling should apply retroactively. But it left it to the ethics commission to decide if particular candidates should be spared from refunds because they had relied on the law in place at the time and would face a hardship if forced to return the money.

Although their agenda listed a public discussion of the issue, the six commissioners immediately went into a closed session at their meeting Sept. 11. They cited an exception to Missouri's open meetings law for discussions about legal actions and communication with their attorneys.

When they reconvened publicly an hour later, commissioners unanimously approved a prepared motion with no discussion. The Republican Party claimed the ethics commission discussed more than it was legally allowed to do in closed session.

On Wednesday, the ethics commission met by conference call and again immediately went into a closed session, as their agenda indicated they would do. After about 20 minutes, they reconvened in open session and -- after a public discussion -- decided 10 minutes later to rescind last week's action.

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