Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster on Monday denied claims that he was influenced by campaign contributions and lobbyist perks while tackling consumer fraud issues, an argument strong enough to convince lawmakers tasked with investigating him that his actions led only to an appearance of misconduct.
State Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican, chaired the investigatory committee and said lawmakers now must head into the legislative session beginning in January ready to address overarching concerns with ethics in Missouri.
Koster is one of many attorneys general under scrutiny after the New York Times reported they were soft on companies facing litigation from their offices after receiving campaign contributions and perks from lobbyists.
The New York Times reported that Koster received $13,500 in contributions from a law firm representing pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and $20,000 directly from the drugmaker, which allegedly falsely marketed some drugs.
He later met with lobbyists and spoke to political action committees while investigating the company and ultimately negotiated a $750,000 settlement with the company.
Koster said Missouri missed out on a multistate investigation that brought more than $1 million to other states because a staffer blew a deadline. Koster, a Democrat, told panel of lawmakers Monday that claims that he intentionally skipped on the joint suit were "ludicrous."
Few lawmakers from either party questioned Koster, who is running for governor in 2016.
Most focused on his suggestions to change ethics laws in Missouri, which University of Missouri-Columbia political scientist Peverill Squire called the "wild west" of campaign finance. Squire said legislators might be hesitant to question practices by Koster that likely are common among their own ranks.
"Lawmakers are sensitive to the fact that they are in a position where they too could be made to look bad," Squire said. "Nobody has clean hands in Jefferson City in terms of campaign finance."
Since the allegations against him, Koster has implemented what he called the strictest ethics policies of attorneys general in the country. Those include bans on any lobbyist gifts and a freeze on contributions until 90 days after his office is finished litigating or determining whether to litigate against a company.
Koster told lawmakers Monday that they should adopt similar policies for themselves, and legislators already have drafted bills addressing those concerns.
But Wally Siewert, director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, questioned the effectiveness of piecemeal legislation. He said Koster's suggestion to ban campaign contributions during the legislative session and for 90 days afterward would do more to change appearances than limit potential for lobbyists to sway decisions.
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