Steve Tilley, Will Royster, John Rizzo and the Battle for the 40th District

Dec 28, 2010 at 12:52 pm
Steve Tilley, incoming Speaker of the House
Steve Tilley, incoming Speaker of the House
Reading the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch yesterday, we were stunned to learn that the new Speaker of the House, Steve Tilley, may decide to "refuse to seat a new representative from Kansas City" over allegations of voter fraud.

That representative, John J. Rizzo, is a Democrat. And Daily RFT was shocked to find out later (that is, not from the P-D story, which was largely sympathetic to the speaker-elect) that Tilley himself is hardly a neutral bystander in this dispute. The speaker-to-be actually endorsed Rizzo's opponent in the Democratic primary -- the same opponent who's claiming voter fraud and arguing that Rizzo should not be allowed to take his seat.

So can a right-wing Republican like Tilley simply decide "not to seat" a fellow state rep, one whose election he actively opposed, on mere suspicion of voter fraud?

As it turns out, the answer to that question may be, sorta, mostly yes. But it's all a bit more complicated than the P-D's original story suggested.

Here's the back story: Rizzo, a Democrat, won the general election (against a Libertarian) fair and square. But the primary election was as tight as it gets; Rizzo beat fellow Democrat Will Royster by three votes. After a recount, that lead dwindled to one lousy vote.

After that, as the Post-Dispatch reports, Royster sued, alleging voter fraud and demanding a new election. But after a brief trial, Judge Stephen Nixon ultimately refused to order a second recount or a second election. That decision was upheld in a detailed, unanimous opinion by three appellate court justices.

The P-D, however, suggests that Nixon's decision may have been less than, shall we say, independent. He retired as a judge this month, and subsequently took a job as county commissioner for Jackson County. And Rizzo's father is the chairman of the Jackson County Legislature. Conspiracy alert!

Royster claims that taints the judge's decision. He also alleges that he's found new instances of voter fraud. And that, the P-D's story stated yesterday, might be enough to convince Tilley to refuse to seat him.

Still, it sounds like a pretty crazy precedent for Tilley to be setting. A judge has already heard the evidence; in a reasoned and lengthy opinion, the appellate court agreed. How could the Speaker of the House be more judicious than those parties? And how can he possibly claim neutrality when he himself endorsed Royster?

It hardly helps that Kansas City Star's Barb Shelly handily dismissed some of Royster's most damning allegations:

One thing I can confidently call baseless is Royster's allegation that Judge Nixon ruled the way he did because he was trying to curry favor with important people in Jackson County government, like candidate Rizzo's father. At the time of the ruling, Henry Rizzo was chairman of the Jackson County Legislature.

But Henry Rizzo was already on his way out when Nixon made his ruling, having lost his August primary to Crystal Williams. And -- contrary to another Royster allegation -- Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders had no dog in that particular hunt. Sanders' subsequent hiring of Nixon to be his county counselor had nothing to do with the Rizzo-Royster race. The idea of freeing up a judge's seat to give Jackson County Prosecutor Jim Kanatzar a soft place to land is a much better theory.

The whole thing doesn't smell right to us. Yeah, Royster may have some examples of voter fraud; the P-D's Tony Messenger certainly outlined a few. But at least one of the major contentions, one involving Somali voters, is one Royster already made to Judge Nixon. Knock out the allegation of misconduct on the judge's part (which Shelly, with her knowledge of Kansas City-area politics, seems to do easily), and this looks like none of the incoming Speaker's business.

But the good news is that, no matter how inclined to intervene Tilley is, he can only go so far. Even though there was no mention of the limits to his powers in the P-D yesterday, the paper today told a slightly different story.

To realize that, of course, you have to be the kind of obsessive who reads the corrections box. Here's the teeny, tiny little correction tucked away in today's Post-Dispatch, in its entirety:

A front-page story Monday did not make clear that incoming Speaker of the Missouri House Steve Tilley will need a full vote of the House to force a new election if he decides not to seat Kansas City Democrat John J. Rizzo because of allegations of voter fraud.

Ah. So Tilley can't just hand overrule the stated legal process for elections in this state and the seat off to the guy he endorsed in the primary? Good to know.

We placed some calls this morning to try to learn exactly how this process is supposed to works, but it's apparently so unusual that answers were not forthcoming. The most we could ascertain is that Royster could contest the election, and a House committee would apparently look into it. From there it's anyone's guess. 

UPDATE at 5 p.m.: A source pointed us to this AP story, which provides a much more clear-eyed assessment than the P-D about what could happen next. As our sources have explained, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the Speaker-elect would have the power to stop Rizzo from being sworn in -- because Rizzo will likely be sworn in even before the Speaker-elect becomes the Speaker.

In light of that, Royster's best hope is that the House decides to remove his opponent at some point after everybody is sworn in, a process that would almost certainly involve a formal complaint, hearings on the part of the House Elections Committee and a vote by the full House. So, it appears the P-D may have screwed up even more than we initially realized.

Again, we'll have more on this story as it develops.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated that Royster was allowed to examine the ballots by hand. We're now told that's not the case; this post has been corrected to reflect that information. Also, we previously stated that the P-D reported many of the same allegations that the judge already ruled on; while that was true of one major allegations by the Royster camp involving Somali voters, some of the other information is in fact new. We regret the errors.