The Ethics Omission

Enforcers of Missouri's campaign-finance laws would rather hide than seek.

Jeff Shore has a lot of balls in the air. Or maybe just balls.

The Springfield certified public accountant keeps the books for at least four political action and campaign committees. As deputy treasurer, he frequently signs financial-disclosure reports filed with federal and state agencies. All of the committees raise money for GOP causes. There's Friends of Roy Blunt (the campaign committee for U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt [R-7th]), the 7th District Congressional Republican Committee and Missourians for Matt Blunt (now Missouri's secretary of state).

Shore also keep records for another organization whose name, at first blush, obscures its actual purpose. Among political insiders, Rely On Your Beliefs is known as "Roy B." That's "Roy B" as in Roy Blunt, who serves as honorary chairman of the political action committee.

Thousands of boxed records are piled up in the Jefferson City offices of the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Jennifer Silverberg
Thousands of boxed records are piled up in the Jefferson City offices of the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Each year, Rely On Your Beliefs collects hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporations, individuals and interest groups and distributes the money to congressional candidates who can't take the checks directly because of contribution limits in federal election law. In the spring of 1999, Rely On Your Beliefs decided to get involved in state politics and do the same thing for candidates in Missouri.

The money started as a trickle. During 1999, Missourians for Matt Blunt received $6,000 in contributions from Rely On Your Beliefs, which also gave $2,000 to gubernatorial candidate Jim Talent. By the end of the year, Rely On Your Beliefs had raised more than $64,500 to fuel GOP campaigns in Missouri, with most of the money coming from other states. The biggest single chunk was a $25,000 contribution from Houston-based Enron Corp. Five dairies in New Mexico also contributed, as did propane and bottled-gas companies in New Jersey and Wisconsin.

Fundraising remained brisk -- and mostly out-of-state -- in the first quarter of 2000, when Rely On Your Beliefs collected another $57,000. By the middle of 2000, the kitty had swelled to $200,000. Only then did Rely On Your Beliefs bother to tell anyone just where the money was coming from and where it was going. Disclosure reports hit the Missouri Ethics Commission, which polices compliance with state campaign-finance laws, less than a month before the primary. The law says that committees such as Rely On Your Beliefs are supposed to file quarterly reports.

Shore says the committee's late filing with the state was the result of a misunderstanding. Only when Rely On Your Beliefs gave $100,000 to the state GOP on June 15 of last year did Shore begin to wonder whether maybe he should call the Ethics Commission. After speaking with a staff employee, Shore says he prepared a bundle of state disclosure reports and sent them off to Jefferson City.

"We weren't trying to skirt around anything," Shore says. "It was just that the out-of-state-committee laws were unclear. We were trying to follow them. We did the best we could." Shore says Rely On Your Beliefs even consulted a lawyer on the question. "The fund hired an attorney in D.C., who was supposed to be an out-of-state-committee specialist," he recalls. "During this time, I was calling her and saying, 'Now, explain to me again what we're supposed to do.' She said to me, 'No, you don't need to report because it's an out-of-state committee.' So we were kind of following their guidelines. Later, it was, like, 'Oops, we need to do this.' So then we did it. Even now, the law's still unclear."

It sure doesn't sound ambiguous, reading straight from the statutes: "A committee domiciled outside this state shall be required to file a statement of organization ... provided that ... the aggregate of all contributions and expenditures made to support or oppose candidates and ballot measures in this state exceeds one thousand five hundred dollars in the current calendar year." Furthermore, the law says committees must report to the Ethics Commission no later than 20 days after they're organized.

Rely On Your Beliefs contributed at least $8,000 to state candidates in 1999, according to state reports filed by Talent and Matt Blunt; however, the committee's corresponding disclosure reports list just $2,000 in contributions to those candidates. (A $4,000 contribution to Blunt in 1999 shows up on a paper report filed with the Federal Election Commission by Rely On Your Beliefs, but the federal agency has no jurisdiction over state campaigns and lists only contributions to federal candidates in its searchable database.) Shore, who insists that Rely On Your Beliefs wasn't trying to hide anything, won't concede that the $2,000 in donations the committee eventually reported giving Blunt and Talent triggered the state reporting requirement. "The threshold may or may not have been met for an out-of-state committee in the fourth quarter of 1999, when we made those two contributions," he says.

Even today, Shore contends that Rely On Your Beliefs isn't required to tell Missouri officials the names of its contributors who are giving money for state races. The reason, he maintains, is that the committee has a national perspective and makes donations in state races outside Missouri. "We made some to Mississippi," he says. "I think we just sent some to Vermont." But the amount of those contributions is very small. Just $5,000 of the $237,000 raised by Rely On Your Beliefs for the 2000 election was shipped outside Missouri, according to state reports the committee has been filing even though it doesn't think it should have to. "Because of the advice from the Missouri Ethics Commission, we've been reporting all the contributions in Missouri and all the payments in Missouri, even though that's not technically correct," Shore says. "It wasn't like we were trying to hide this money. That wasn't the idea at all."

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