AT&T Donation to Koster Highlights Conflict-of-Interest Policy in Missouri Governor Campaign

The telecom company had a previous contribution refunded after Koster instituted a conflict-of-interest policy related to his work as attorney general. AT&T then wrote another identical check after enough time had passed.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster
AP Photo/Denny Medley
Nov. 3, 2015, 8 p.m.

In Au­gust, Mis­souri At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Chris Koster’s cam­paign for gov­ernor re­ceived a $10,000 con­tri­bu­tion from AT&T. It’s one of many checks the tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions gi­ant or its PAC writes to polit­ic­al can­did­ates every year.

What’s un­usu­al in this case is that Koster, a Demo­crat, had already re­turned a $10,000 check from AT&T earli­er this year, as part of his cam­paign’s con­flict-of-in­terest policy against ac­cept­ing funds from en­tit­ies  that Koster’s of­fice in­vest­ig­ates.

It’s part of a long-run­ning story that star­ted in Oc­to­ber 2014, when Koster was a main char­ac­ter in a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning New York Times in­vest­ig­a­tion de­tail­ing how cor­por­ate lob­by­ists seek in­flu­ence with the state at­tor­neys gen­er­al who reg­u­late their in­dus­tries. The Times high­lighted Koster’s re­la­tion­ship—in­clud­ing cam­paign dona­tions—and cor­res­pond­ence with the lob­by­ing firm Dick­stein Sha­piro and three of its cli­ents: 5-hour En­ergy, Pf­izer, and AT&T. In one ex­ample, Koster’s of­fice “took a step that ques­tioned the leg­al strategy of a multi-state in­vest­ig­a­tion of AT&T’s billing prac­tices” weeks after a con­ver­sa­tion with a Dick­stein lob­by­ist.

Koster denied that he ever took ac­tions in­ten­ded to be­ne­fit Dick­stein’s cli­ents as a res­ult of the firm’s lob­by­ing or cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions, but he re­spon­ded by in­sti­tut­ing a strict new con­flict-of-in­terest policy in his gubernat­ori­al cam­paign—in the ab­sence of any ac­tu­al reg­u­la­tion in Mis­souri, which has some of the coun­try’s most re­laxed cam­paign-fin­ance laws. Koster placed a self-im­posed ban on cer­tain dona­tions, in­clud­ing those from com­pan­ies, law firms, or in­di­vidu­als con­nec­ted to in­vest­ig­a­tions in the at­tor­ney gen­er­al’s of­fice. The policy also banned those com­pan­ies from donat­ing to his cam­paign with­in 90 days of an in­vest­ig­a­tion’s res­ol­u­tion and for­bade con­tri­bu­tions from cam­paign staff and lob­by­ist gifts.

Though Koster had ques­tioned the in­vest­ig­a­tion, Mis­souri re­mained in­volved in the AT&T law­suit last year. The state ended up be­ing part of a 50-state set­tle­ment agree­ment reached with AT&T in Oc­to­ber 2014 over the com­pany’s mo­bile billing prac­tices. So when AT&T donated $10,000 to the Koster cam­paign in Janu­ary, it raised some eye­brows, and Koster’s cam­paign re­turned the dona­tion in April.

Now, that same $10,000 has shown up in Koster’s cam­paign fund again—clear of the self-im­posed three-month fun­drais­ing ban, but still in­ex­tric­ably con­nec­ted to Koster’s of­fi­cial busi­ness. Since pub­lic-re­cords laws don’t ap­ply to cam­paigns, there’s no pa­per trail that could shed light on any com­mu­nic­a­tions between Koster’s cam­paign and AT&T (or oth­er donors) about the tim­ing of con­tri­bu­tions.

Koster cam­paign man­ager An­drew Whalen dis­missed con­cerns over the most re­cent AT&T dona­tion. He said no oth­er at­tor­neys gen­er­al in the coun­try—nor any oth­er can­did­ates in Mis­souri, which has no form­al re­stric­tions on of­fice­hold­ers ac­cept­ing lob­by­ist gifts or later be­com­ing lob­by­ists them­selves—have ad­op­ted a con­flict-of-in­terest policy like Koster’s.

“The policy has al­ways been very clear since it was first im­ple­men­ted at this point nearly a year ago, that there is a 90-day win­dow after a case has been settled be­fore an in­di­vidu­al or a com­pany with lit­ig­a­tion be­fore the of­fice can make a con­tri­bu­tion,” Whalen said. “For in­di­vidu­als to ques­tion what is without ques­tion the most com­pre­hens­ive policy in Amer­ica is just par­tis­an hack­ery at its worst.”

Whalen said Koster’s cam­paign has re­turned or re­jec­ted more than $100,000 worth of con­tri­bu­tions so far this year due to the new policy. That fig­ure amounts to over 1 per­cent of the total funds Koster has raised in that time.

No mat­ter what ac­tions Koster takes, the prac­tice of cor­por­ate lob­by­ists at­tempt­ing to in­flu­ence at­tor­neys gen­er­al ex­tends far bey­ond Mis­souri. Three Dick­stein Sha­piro at­tor­neys who fea­tured prom­in­ently in the Times art­icle—Lori Kalani, Bern­ard Nash, and JB Kelly—along with a fourth, Milton Mar­quis, left the firm in May to head up a new “State At­tor­neys Gen­er­al Prac­tice” with the firm Cozen O’Con­nor.

Nash and Mar­quis were lis­ted in the Times re­port as past cam­paign con­trib­ut­ors to Koster, but neither Nash and Mar­quis nor Dick­stein Sha­piro have donated to Koster since the re­port pub­lished last year. Pf­izer and 5-hour En­ergy, which were also sub­jects of the Times story, donated a com­bined $35,500 to Koster’s cam­paigns between 2009 and 2014, but they have not donated to Koster this year—an ab­sence that only makes AT&T’s con­tri­bu­tion stand out more.

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