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Government, Politics & Issues

Nixon taps an old political foe - David Steelman - to revamp pension fund

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 14, 2009 - David Steelman has quite the political pedigree. He's a prominent Rolla lawyer, former legislator, member of a longtime GOP family and the husband of former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, a Republican considering a bid for the U.S. Senate.

Still, David Steelman sounded as stunned as many political observers when he was asked about his appointment Tuesday by an old nemesis -- Gov. Jay Nixon -- to the board of trustees of the Missouri State Employee Retirement System (MOSERS).

"It all happened fast, over the Easter weekend,'' said Steelman, during an cell-phone interview cut short by bad reception on his end.

Also named to the board was Travis Morrison, an accountant and veteran Democrat who made an unsuccessful bid for state auditor in 1986. Steelman and Morrison served in the state House together in the 1980s.

But Nixon's choice of Steelman is fascinating, since the two engaged in a no-holds-barred battle for attorney general in 1992, full of embarrassingly personal attacks. The two even employed the rarely used "L" word -- "liar" -- against each other in a televised debate.

Nixon edged out Steelman that fall in the closest contest on the statewide ballot.

Last year, some saw Sarah Steelman's failed quest for governor as, in part, a way for her husband -- her chief cheerleader and adviser -- to engage in a pseudo-rematch against Nixon. (There was no head-to-head battle because Sarah Steelman lost in the primary to then-U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who then got trounced by Nixon.)

Known for being outspoken, David Steelman deviated from tradition when he declined Tuesday to say who called him over the weekend to offer the MOSERS appointment: "I don't want to discuss private conversations.''

But Steelman did observe that he recognized what his charge was to be.

Nixon, said Steelman, is "interested in looking at reforms, and the proprieties of these bonuses."

The state retirement pension fund has been in the news ever since Post-Dispatch reporter Virginia Young disclosed the bonuses quietly paid to its 72 employees last year, even though the fund lost almost a quarter of its value because of slumping investments.

Steelman also expects to carry on the quest of his wife, who served as an ex-officio member of the MOSERS board during her four years as state treasurer. Like his wife, Steelman said, he believes that MOSERS needs to be more transparent.

The salaries of its employees, for example, aren't included with those of thousands of other state workers in Missouri's Blue Book.

Steelman said that MOSERS must recognize "it is a state agency'' funded with state money.

He added, though, that the agency deserves praise as well.

Steelman said he had "some thoughts'' about the bonuses. "But I'm going to do something I don't usually do,'' he said with a chuckle. "I'm going to learn something before I shoot my mouth off."

Steelman also confirmed that he discussed his appointment with his wife. Without disclosing the details of their conversation, he said it was obvious that "if she had objected, I wouldn't have accepted."

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