KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Over the last two years, two state senators from Kansas City accepted more gifts from lobbyists than any of 195 other Jefferson City lawmakers, Missouri Ethics Commission data shows.
The public data, organized and published by St. Louis Public Radio shows that through April of 2014, senators Kiki Curls and Ryan Silvey, both of Kansas City, accepted more gifts from lobbyists than any other state lawmakers.
In Missouri, lawmakers can legally receive unlimited gifts from lobbyists, provided those gifts are disclosed. St. Louis Public Radio organizes a searchable database for this information, which tracks gifts received based on recent filings, and includes rolling, searchable data for the last two years and for a lawmaker’s career.
Reporting requirements are loose. Some gifts are simply labeled “travel,” “meal,” or “gift.”
Curls, a Democrat, has received $18,540 in gifts in the last two years. St. Louis-based utility company Ameren gave the most, with the value of their gifts totaling some $5,000. Ameren lobbyists give lawmakers the most gifts total of any corporation tracked.
On Friday, Ameren released the following statement saying:
"Ameren Missouri works with many stakeholders throughout the state, including elected officials. These relationships are necessary for addressing regulatory and legislative issues pertaining to the utilities industry. Legislators, regardless of where they live, need information to fully understand the issues facing Missouri and their constituents."
Curls gifts include a $1,800 “Legislative Education & Leadership Development Mission” to Israel in 2012, paid for by the Missouri Biotechnology Association, thousands of dollars’ worth of event tickets from Kansas City Power and Light, including to the MLB All-Star game, and tickets to Mizzou basketball games, paid for by Ameren.
Curls told 41 Action News many of those tickets went to constituents, who regularly request them from her office. Some, she said, were for personal use.
“I don't have a problem with transparency” Curls told 41 Action News by phone. “But I will tell you that many of the expenditures that you happen to be referring to happen to be at the request of my constituents, for folks who might not otherwise have the opportunity to go to some of these expensive events that we happen to have here at different venues in our city.”
When asked about $328 in tickets to see the NBA’s Miami Heat play an exhibition game at Sprint Center in 2012, Curls said she could not recall whether she attended the game or gave the tickets to a constituent. When asked about her relationship with Ameren, she abruptly ended the conversation and hung up.
Ameren representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Republican State Senator Ryan Silvey accepted $18,000 in gifts from lobbyists, according to LobbyingMissouri.org, putting him second only to Curls in gifts received over the last 24 months.
Gifts to Silvey tended to be smaller – a few hundred dollars for concert tickets from Time Warner Cable, golf outings and hotels paid for by the Missouri Primary Care Association, and dozens of meals paid for by the Missouri Auto Dealers Association.
Silvey did not return a phone call requesting a full, on-the-record interview, but did tell 41 Action News briefly that he had done nothing wrong and that some of the larger gifts should have been filed as campaign donations instead.
Analysts say Missouri’s wide-open ethics laws make for a wide-open system of gifts and donations for lawmakers that goes largely unregulated.
“Technically they're not doing anything illegal as I understand the law,” explained Dale Neuman, director of the Harry S. Truman Center for Government affairs at UMKC. “Are they doing things that might raise eyebrows of some of the people in their district, the answer is probably yes.”
Rarely if ever, Neuman said, are gifts or donations offered as a form of quid-pro-quo, but rather, lobbyists use them to build familiarity with lawmakers who have often spent far less time in the capital than they have and who are less well-compensated for their time there. The salary for a Missouri State Senator is just $35,915 per year.
Neuman said public frustration with such gifts is rarely vented at the ballot box. State legislative seats are often gerrymandered to protect incumbents from all but a strong primary challenger. Nonetheless, he said gifts of thousands of dollars should raise public concern for a legislature that functions best with strong public oversight.
“You have to get a lot more citizens out there to make the same kind of noise and get the same kind of attention that some of these lobbyists can get with some of these gifts that they give,” Neuman said.