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New Legislation Would Close Loophole that Allowed Bribery

February 08, 1999
By: Chris Pelikan
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 165 & SB 177

JEFFERSON CITY - MU students not happy with the way their university is being run have an option they may be unaware of -- bribing a curator. And it might be legal!

The MU Board of Curators along with more than 170 other state boards and commissions can currently receive bribes without fear of state felony prosecution, according to some legislators and the former Jackson County prosecutor whose office uncovered the loophole in state bribery statutes.

Current law bans bribery of a public servant of the state. However, the law limits the definition of public servant to someone who gets a salary -- exempting non-salaried officials like curators.

"Public servant as defined under the present statute does not include those individuals that do not receive compensation for their services in a state capacity," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian May, D-St. Louis. May has sponsored a bill that would expand the definition of a public servant to also include public officials who are not paid for their services.

The bill would affect the 1371 individuals the governor's office identifies as unpaid state public officials. There are thousands more serving in various local government boards such as school boards, sewer districts, city commissions, etc.

"I think this basically sends a message to the people of the state that those officials, whether compensated or not, will be treated in the same manner if they violate their trust of office," May said.

The loophole located in current law was discovered when then Jackson County Prosecutor Claire McCaskill, now Missouri's state auditor, was investigating a possible instance of bribery involving a Kansas City public official. During the course of the investigation, her office concluded the official was immune from state public bribery laws because his position was unpaid.

"The public needs to be assured that those individuals who are serving on behalf of the citizens of the state are held to the same standards as any other elected or appointed state official who receives compensation," May said.

The proposal passed unanimously in a vote of the House Criminal Law Committee and how is awaiting approval by the full House.

"This is something that goes beyond party lines, this is about good government and I trust that everyone supports good government and will want to get this done," May said. "I don't foresee any opposition to this bill."

Rich Callahan, Cole County prosecuting attorney and director of Missouri Prosecutor's Association agrees that this legislation should be passed for clarification purposes.

"This legislation is very necessary because you want to charge someone with what they've done," Callahan said.

However, he also argues that current non-paid public officials do not have free reign to accept bribes.

"Among nine volumes (of legal statutes) you can usually find something that will cover bribery. There are always other statutes to cover bribery," Callahan said.