Originally in the Jefferson County Leader on October 17, 2018
One of the fun things about my job is its capacity to surprise me. It happened twice last week, and the same fellow was responsible both times.
His name is Terry Beckmeyer and he lives in New Haven, a small town (2,000 residents) in Franklin County about 70 miles northwest of Jefferson County.
A while back, he wrote a letter to the editor, asking if the Leader was aware that our guy, state Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, has been the No. 1 recipient of lobbyist gifts among the Legislature’s 250 members over the last four years – from 2015 to midway through this year.
It’s trackable because Missouri law requires registered lobbyists to file monthly reports with the Missouri Ethics Commission detailing what they give to elected officials, their staff members and their families.
I didn’t want to print Beckmeyer’s letter because space is limited on the Opinions Page and we reserve it for local folks, but managing editor Kim Robertson handed over the letter to Leader political reporter Steve Taylor to check out.
Taylor went to the website Beckmeyer suggested and verified the claim. The resulting Oct. 4 Page 1 story confirmed that Wieland’s lobbyist take of $23,690 since 2015 is tops in the state. That was information I didn’t know. But it wasn’t either of the big surprises.
Wieland made the case in our story that lobbyists have something he needs to be an effective legislator – information – and added that his vote can’t be bought with a meal or a sports ticket, typical of the gifts he had accepted.
“I could sit in my office and not socialize with anyone and on these lobbyists’ reports look like a good little choir boy, but I wouldn’t be getting anything done. I’d be a terrible legislator,” said Wieland, whose 22nd District takes in the north half of Jefferson County.
It’s not unusual for politicians to say, and mean it, that their votes are not for sale. Wieland’s comment was echoed in the story by state Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, who represents south Jefferson County and accepted $9,230.70 in gifts over the four years, and 113th state Rep. Dan Shaul, R-Imperial, who accepted $4,246 in gifts.
Although we interviewed only those three, all Jefferson County legislators since 2015 (except for new 97th District state Rep. Mike Revis, D-Fenton) have received gifts from lobbyists, and here’s a good guess each one of those officials would disavow being influenced.
I should point out, however, that since 2004, lobbyists who were advocating positions with Missouri legislators reportedly plied the politicos with gifts averaging nearly $900,000 a year in eat, drink, tickets, travel, etc.
Clearly, those footing the bill must think they’re buying something.
Ta-da! Time to tell you what surprised me. Our story was legitimate no matter who put us up to it, but I figured Beckmeyer might not be a real person, or might be a Democratic operative, or might be related to Bob Butler, Wieland’s Democratic opponent in the Nov. 6 election.
I thought I’d be writing a column today about how the press sometimes LETS itself be manipulated for the greater good.
So, I called Beckmeyer. Turns out he’s a real person, a self-described “curmudgeon” who was looking up information about his own state rep when he spotted Wieland’s total. He thought he should inform our voters.
Don’t call Beckmeyer a Democrat. “I’m a proud independent!” he declared.
Retired for the past eight years, Beckmeyer said he has devoted much of his time to researching “unscrupulous” political activity. His primary focus at present, he said, is Missouri’s new voter ID law, which he opposes.
Beckmeyer’s resume was the first shock to my system.
The second came when I asked him his position on Amendment 1 – the “Clean Missouri” initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot. The proposal seeks more transparency in legislative records and proceedings; would set limits on campaign donations; would change the process for redrawing legislative districts to make the end result less partisan … and, drum roll.
It would ban any gift from lobbyists worth more than $5.
Beckmeyer is squarely for this, right?
Uh, not necessarily.
Echoing Amendment 1 opponents who went to court trying unsuccessfully to block the vote, Beckmeyer is afraid the proposal is taking on too much in one fell swoop.
“I’m confused by Amendment 1,” he said. “There are too many issues going on. Any one of those things is a significant issue by itself, and in the end, they might not turn out to be what they are intended to be.”
He said he might have to wait until Election Day for a last-minute gut check to guide his vote.
My gut says Missouri needs Amendment 1. The Legislature has confronted these issues many times and failed to make any headway. It’s past time for voters to step in.
Romine and Shaul told Taylor they would like to see lobbyists’ gifts go away.
“I’ve voted every time to get rid of accepting lobbyists’ gifts, and I will again,” Shaul said. “But until the rules are changed, I’ll play by the rules we’re given.”
Hey, Missouri voters, why don’t you and I change the rules?
We have our chance in 26 days.