2 candidates hope to keep contributions over legal limit

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Most candidates with Southeast Missouri ties who took contributions in excess of the legal limit during a seven-month period earlier this year either have returned or will return the money. But at least two state lawmakers plan to ask for hardship exemptions, requests that can be heard behind closed doors according to a ruling issued Tuesday.

In 2006, Missouri lawmakers removed contribution limits set during the 1990s. The measure took effect Jan. 1, but a Missouri Supreme Court ruling in July reinstated the limits.

The Missouri Ethics Commission in November ordered candidates to declare whether they planned to return the money or ask for a hardship exemption. But the commission won't release what candidates have chosen, citing exemptions to the Missouri Sunshine Law that allows it to conduct enforcement hearings in private.

"We're not saying who has asked for hardship and who has not," commission executive director Robert Connor said.

The lawsuit challenging the closed-door hearings was filed by state Rep. Margaret Donnelly, D-St. Louis. Judge Jon E. Beetem of Jefferson City denied her request for a temporary order to block the private hearings.

"The court finds the petitioner has failed to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits that the Sunshine Law prevents Ethics, in an individual enforcement case, from considering what is or is not a 'hardship' in closed session," Beetem wrote in his order.

Donnelly, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general, said she will pursue the case. "I still feel people are fed up with government behind closed doors. I will go ahead with the full hope we can get an injunction."

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican from Cape Girardeau, told the Associated Press in late November that he planned to return $312,110 in contributions that exceeded the $1,275 limit per donation for statewide candidates.

And last week, House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, folded a committee he established for a potential statewide campaign after returning $41,622. After accounting for other expenses, Jetton transferred the committee's remaining $24,143 to a new political action committee named the Speaker Jetton Leadership Fund.

Most area lawmakers or legislative candidates have returned or will return the money. State Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said Tuesday he plans to return $99,600. Candidates for state Senate are limited to accepting $650 from each contributor.

The refunds, Crowell said, will be made sometime after Jan. 1. "I just want to understand and make sure we are not going to get in any other trouble," he said.

State Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, state Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, and Michael Winder, a Democrat seeking the 156th District Missouri House seat, also said they will or have returned the over-limit contributions. House candidates may accept contributions up to $325.

Lipke will return $3,100; Brandom has returned $6,375, and Winder must give back $700.

Two other area lawmakers, however, said they will argue for hardship exemptions. For both Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, and House Majority Leader Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, the required refunds would exceed the cash available in their campaign treasuries.

According to commission figures, Hodges would need to return $7,300, while Tilley would need to give back $32,041. Their campaigns reported having $114 and $13,614, respectively, on hand at the end of September.

Rep. Billy Pat Wright, R-Dexter, accepted $3,925 over the limits and could not be reached for his decision.

Part of the reason for filing for an exemption, Hodges said, is that during a transition from one campaign treasurer to another, several contributions were reported twice. The figure calculated by the commission is incorrect, he said. The campaign will file amended reports to correct the errors, Hodges said.

"All I told Joe Carroll," Hodges said, referring to ethics commission enforcement director, "is that I want to get it right."

Tilley said he will argue that the money is already spent, and he would have to raise additional donations to repay the over-limit amounts. The expenses he cited included the cost of a campaign to be elected Republican floor leader.

"We raised the money for a race that is now over," he said, noting that the Supreme Court had cited that as one potential hardship that could be acceptable.

Tilley also expects lawmakers to attempt to pass a new bill removing the limits. The repeal, he said, made campaign finance more transparent to public scrutiny. A return to limits, he said, will encourage the establishment of political action committees to funnel money to candidates through back-door channels.

"The bankers formed seven or eight PACs," Tilley said. "Removing the limits would bring transparency and everybody is going to know about it."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126


Contributions over the limit

Most candidates have declared publicly whether they will return the limits or claim a hardship in an attempt to keep them. Southeast Missouri politicians who accepted the excess contributions, and their announced decisions, include:

* Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, $312,110, return contributions

* House Speaker Rod Jetton, $41,622, return contributions

* Sen. Jason Crowell, $99,600, return contributions

* Rep. Ellen Brandom, $6,735, return contributions

* Rep. Steve Hodges, $7,300, claiming hardship

* Michael Winder, $700, return contributions

* Rep. Scott Lipke, $3,100, return contributions

* Rep. Bill Pat Wright, $3,925, N/A

* Rep. Steve Tilley, $32,041, claiming hardship

Note: N/A means candidate did not return calls

SOURCE: Missouri Ethics Commission, candidate interviews

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