Rex Sinquefield's donations
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Lobbyist Money Help  

Rex Sinquefield's donations

Date: October 20, 2010
By: Joe Yerardi
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY -What do the Democratic executive of St. Louis County, the Republican leader of the state House of Representatives and a ballot measure to limit earnings taxes have in common?

Their campaigns all are bankrolled, in part, by retired St. Louis businessman Rex Sinquefield. And the efforts to re-elect St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, send State Representative Steven Tilley back to the House and pass Proposition A are just three of the nearly four dozen campaigns to which Sinquefield has donated in the past two years.

The donations--totaling over $13.3 million--are the result of Sinquefield's personal wealth, his ideological passion and Missouri's lax campaign finance laws, say experts and politicians.

Missouri is one of six states that place no limit on campaign contributions from individuals, corporations or political action committees, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The CEO and president of an organization that provides consulting services to organizations interested in making contributions on a state level compared Missouri to a Caribbean territory notorious for money laundering and tax evasion.

"It's like the grand Cayman Islands," Elizabeth Bartz said of Missouri's campaign finance laws.

Missouri voters approved contribution limits in a 1994 referendum, but lawmakers repealed the limits in 2006. In mid-2007, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the repeal, reinstating the limits. The legislature responded by again repealing the limits in July, 2008.

As part of the repeal, lawmakers also imposed restrictions on committee-to-committee transfers, in an effort to assure transparency.

In repealing the limits, lawmakers argued that because there were easy ways to get around the limits, repeal would make campaign funding sources -- since there would be no reason to use "middle-man" organizations.  Some pointed to Sinquefield's formation of about 100 different organizations to channel money to the campaign of Chris Koster for attorney general in 2008 when campaign limits were in effect.

Since repeal, Sinquefield has donated freely and at least one beneficiary of the man's money believes his influence is too great.

State Representative Chris Kelly (D-Columbia) points to the $10.7 million Sinquefield has dropped into the campaign to pass Proposition A as evidence of a flawed system.

"I think [Sinquefield] is dead wrong on the earnings tax. The effort is to buy the public policy," said Kelly. "There was no public groundswell for this measure. The only reason this is an issue is because Rex wants to buy this public policy. I don't think anyone should be allowed to buy public policy."

Kelly readily acknowledged that, "[Sinquefield's] donated very significantly to my campaign," most recently with a $5,001 donation in January of 2010.

Kelly is a longtime proponent of campaign finance changes, leading an effort in the 1980s to strengthen disclosure requirements.

"The money poisons the political environment and I think the secrecy is a cancer on the body politic," said Kelly.

In an interview earlier this month, Marc Ellinger, lead spokesman for the pro-Proposition A group Let Voters Decide, downplayed the influence of Sinquefield's money in the campaign.

"He's been a very generous contributor but 210,000 voters across the state of Missouri signed petitions, put their names out in the public domain, to say 'we want to vote on this,'" Ellinger said. "Voters ultimately get to decide what they want to do on this matter. As much as anyone puts into an election, the voters get to decide."

Sinquefield has refused requests for interviews about Proposition A or his personal financing of the measure.

Politicians interviewed for this piece insist the money doesn't impact them.

"We consider him [Sinquefield] to be one of our greatest campaign assets," said Katy Jamboretz, press secretary for Dooley's campaign for St. Louis County executive. "That being said, there's no correlation between who we get money from and how decisions are made. Absolutely none."

Jamboretz notes that Dooley is on record as opposing Proposition A.

Sinquefield has spread his largess in a targeted manner.

In the past two years, he has favored Republican committees by a nearly three-to-one margin.

Of the 44 separate campaign committees to which he's given, 32 are Republican and 11 are Democratic (the non-partisan Let Voters Decide is the 44th committee).

Sinquefield has also given generously to members of the legislative leadership.

House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, has accepted $200,000 of Sinquefield's money in the past two years.

It could be money well spent.  Next year, Tilley is expected to become House speaker, a position that has enormous power over the fate of legislation.

Tilley said Sinquefield should be allowed to spend as much as he desires.

"It's a freedom of speech issue. He believes in an issue and he supports it," said Tilley, referring to Sinquefield's investment in the "Yes" on Proposition A campaign.

Tilley counts himself as an opponent of contribution limits, arguing they decrease transparency by encouraging opaque independent expenditures.

"They've got limits on the federal level. Have you noticed all the independent expenditures, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, behind the negative ads?" asked Tilley. "Nobody's accountable to that."

As Majority Leader, Tilley this year helped shepherd through ethics rules that granted greater investigatory powers to the state's Ethics Commission and curtailed the ability of contributors to hide donations by funneling money through various political action committees. He regards Missouri's disclosure requirements -- including a requirement that any donation over $5,000 be reported within 48 hours--as strong.

Bartz, whose group educates interest groups about state campaign finance laws, agreed

"It's not like they can just give and give and give and nobody can find out," said Bartz. "It is public information and it is information you can find out."

Sinquefield has made a point of making contributions of exactly $5,001 so as to trigger the accelerated reporting requirement.

But Senator Victor Callahan, D-Independence, the Senate Democratic Leader, says the rules don't go far enough.

"In our political history, there's always been large groups that have attempted to affect public policy," said Callahan. "That's why you should go back to limits where you can limit the ability of those interests to do that."

One public policy that has long interested Sinquefield is the elimination of Missouri's income tax and he's taken an interest in the political fortunes of legislators who are in such a position to bring that about.

In the past two years, he's given $26,502 to members of the House and Senate committees with influence over tax policy.

And even contribution limit boosters like Callahan, who got $5,001 from Sinquefield last November, admit it's tough to operate outside the money-dominated political system.

"Politics is a competitive endeavor and I'm not going to sit there and impose some limit on myself. I'm going to advocate for [limits] to become law but if there are no limits, I'm not going to sit there and say, 'Contribute $100 to me but let the majority party collect $50,000.'"

When asked if she could recall a situation where one man has given so much money to so many campaigns in so little time, Bartz, the 34-year veteran of the campaign finance industry, was stumped.

"I have to admit that off the top of my head, I really can't."