"A major transparency flaw"  Part 1

COLUMBIA, Mo 3/20/16 (Feature) -- A Columbia Mayoral candidate's failure to register as a lobbyist may be one of the most egregious ethics violations in a generation, both for its long duration and the many laws and opinions that mandate the filing.  

Skip Walther, a Columbia Daily Tribune columnist and attorney, has lobbied the Columbia City Council, Boone County Commission, city boards and commissions for at least two decades.   He has represented developers, businesses, neighborhood associations, and other organizations.   SEE PART TWO.

But unlike his attorney peers who also represent clients before local elected officials, Walther has never registered with the Missouri Ethics Commission (MEC).   
Attorneys Craig Van Matre, Jeremy Root, Phebe La Mar, Bruce Beckett, and Robert Hollis registered as lobbyists years ago.   

Walther's opponent, Brian Treece, is also a registered lobbyist.

The MEC requirements arise from the same concept Walther has been championing:  transparency.  

"The public has a right to know those individuals who are seeking to influence legislation or executive decisions," MEC director Charles Lamb wrote in an official Opinion, 1997.10.113.   

During a discussion of government transparency at a televised candidate debate, Walther insisted that, as an attorney, he did not have to follow MEC rules. 

"I don't work in politics, so I'm not subject to the same ethics or ethics campaign finance disclosure requirements that my opponent has," he told the audience during an exchange that starts about 22:30.  
"I'm subject to a different set of standards.   It's called the rules of professional responsibility for attorneys." 

Treece vigorously disagreed.   "Those rules of professional conduct do not exempt Mr. Walther from the Missouri Ethics Commission," he said.  "Time and time again, he has lobbied the Columbia City Council, and failed to register with the MEC.   I really think this is a major transparency flaw in his campaign." 

"I've never lobbied in my life!" Walther responded.  

The MEC classifies lobbyists according to which bodies they lobby -- legislative, elected local government officials, etc. -- citing Missouri state laws such as RSMo 105.470

"Any person employed specifically for the purpose of attempting to influence any action by a local government official elected in a county, city, town, or village with an annual operating budget of over ten million dollars is an 'elected local government official lobbyist.'" 

The City of Columbia has had an annual operating budget over $10 million since at least the 1960s.  The budget is presently around $450 million.  

The statute also defines "executive lobbyists" who "
attempt to influence any action by the executive branch of government or by any elected or appointed official, employee, department, division, agency or board or commission thereof"; and "legislative lobbyists" who lobby the state legislature.  

RSMo 105.473.1 further mandates "the lobbyist shall file monthly reports with the commission on standardized forms prescribed by the commission."  

A sample report may be viewed by typing "Columbia" into this search engine and selecting "All Lobbyists."   Click the L-coded ID next to any of the 438 names.   Both active and terminated lobbyist registrations appear.  

The MEC clarifies its rules with opinions about specific cases.  Those opinions conflict with Walther's debate point about an attorney exemption.  

A 1997 decision (Opinion 1997.10.113) found "there is no exception to the statute that exempts attorneys who act as lobbyists from registering as lobbyists." 

Any attorney who "regularly represents developers for the purpose of obtaining municipal approval of zoning and economic incentives" or "meets with City Council members about the projects"
must register as "elected local government official lobbyists,"  the MEC decided in 2007 (Opinion 2007.03.L.007-6)

More recently
(2015 decision 2015.04.L.001), the MEC found that "an attorney at law engaged in activities on behalf of any person" before a legislative body would be required to register as a lobbyist.  

The only exceptions are if the attorney is 1) responding to a request for information from any public official or legislative branch employee; 2) publishing editorials or opinion pieces (as Walther does in the Tribune); 3) testifying as a witness before the legislative body; 4) an employee of the legislative body.

Registration helps reduce conflicts of interest and other non-transparent dealings which can arise when lobbyists get too close to the organizations they lobby.  

Mr. Walther represented Greek life and housing organizations before the City Council on a controversial fire sprinkler mandate in 2008.   He had an indirect impact on legislation. 

About a year later, Mayor Darwin Hindman appointed him to the city's "Fire Sprinkler Task Force", where he had a direct impact on legislation.   

"The Commission continues to be guided by its long-held belief that the reporting provisions of RSMo 105 and 130 were enacted because the public has a right to know who is spending money on public officials and employees, attempting to influence their decisions," MEC director R. F. Connor reiterated in 2007.  (Opinion 2007.03.L.006-5)

"When in doubt, it is better to err on the side of reporting." 


-- In the interest of disclosure, the editor/publisher of The Columbia Heart Beat has donated to the Treece for Mayor campaign.   This marks the third time we have made that point.