JEFFERSON CITY - State legislators solicited lobbyist donations for expenses ranging from meals to Christmas parties and gift cards for their staff, according to an audit released Monday by the state auditor's office.
"We do have significant concerns over potential conflict of interest when they are soliciting funds on behalf of the Senate as a body from lobbyists who have interests in front of the Senate. It makes it very difficult to say no," Missouri State Auditor Susan Montee said.
Lobbyist contributions to individual legislators and legislative groups has been standard practice in Missouri for decades. The audit found that both the House and Senate solicit contributions from lobbyists which the legislature then decides how to spend.
Other potential issues include:
Montee, a Democrat, said the Republican-controlled Senate set up a non-government bank account in 2003 for lobbyists funds. Since 2003, there has been more than $76,000 deposited into the account. Almost $61,000 has been withdrawn.
Montee said the Senate approached her office had initially asked if they could set up a fund outside of the State Treasury, but were told no. After consulting with the Missouri Ethics Commission the Senate was told they could set up the account as long as lobbyists reported all donations.
Senate Administrator James Howerton, who oversees the fund, said it was created to feed workers and protect them from potential conflicts of interest.
"If we reach a point where we do know that we're not going to be able to let our people go for a meal we have the funds here in place and the checks written," Howerton said. "Unless somebody comes in and asks whose names are in the fund nobody knows who paid for it, it's just another layer of protection from that charge of is there possible influence going on here."
Howerton said the money should not be under the control of the state because it is not part of the taxpayers fund.
Still, Montee said, a state body should not collect money unless it is maintained by the state treasurer's office.
"Is it or is it not state money?" she said.
Montee said if a state entity takes money on behalf of the state, then it is state money.
Montee said a similar problem exists in the House of Representatives. She said there are no deposit records or donation records for the House because Representatives would ask lobbyists if they would be willing to purchase food and bring it to lawmakers.
In both chambers, lobbyists did not report most donations to the Missouri Ethics Commission. The House response to the audit stated, "the House has neither the jurisdiction to enforce the (Missouri Ethics Commission) reporting requirements nor the legal obligation to notify lobbying entities regarding reportable events or reporting methods associated with lobbyist donations or gifts."
Howerton agreed saying it is not senators responsibility to tell lobbyists when to report donations.
There is no law forcing the legislature to inform lobbyists when they need to file reports, but Montee said the process should be more transparent.