© 2021 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Government, Politics & Issues

Todd Graves Gets High-Powered Help Lobbying For University Of Missouri Curator Position

Prominent political donor Michael Ketchmark (left) and former GOP state chairman Todd Graves
Provided via Missouri Independent
Prominent political donor Michael Ketchmark (left) and former GOP state chairman Todd Graves

A deep-pocket political donor from the Kansas City area squired Todd Graves around the Capitol this week, as the former state GOP chairman works to quell concerns about his bid for a seat on the University of Missouri Board of Curators.

Michael Ketchmark, who along with his firm has donated more than $1 million to Democrats and Republicans over the past decade, escorted Graves to meetings seeking votes for what promises to be the most controversial confirmation fight of the year.

Over Tuesday and Wednesday, Ketchmark, Graves and University of Missouri staff lobbyist Dusty Schnieders met with many, if not most, senators, who must confirm him before he can begin the six-year term on the board.

Gov. Mike Parson on March 18 nominated Graves and Keith Holloway of Cape Girardeau to seats on the nine-member board, replacing Phil Snowden and David Steelman. Two other members are also serving past the expiration of their terms, but Parson has not stated when he will make additional selections.

The Gubernatorial Appointments Committee will hold a hearing on Graves’ nomination on March 31, Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz said Thursday.

Schatz, who chairs the committee, met with Graves and Ketchmark on Tuesday.

Democrats who oppose Graves, a former U.S. Attorney who founded Graves Garrett law firm and was Republican state chairman from 2017 to 2019, have said they worry about such a partisan appointee.

Republicans, who will only speak privately, complain that Graves was too close to former Gov. Eric Greitens and left party finances in a hole as he departed.

“Obviously there has been some expression of concern over Mr. Graves,” Schatz said Thursday.

The meetings were designed to address those issues, Schatz said.

“Hopefully he can persuade them, or assuage whatever concerns they have,” he said.

Graves did not respond to emails sent Wednesday seeking an interview. He has not responded to any messages or calls from The Independent since his name surfaced as a candidate for curator in January.

‘Liberal takeover’

Notes taken by an aide to Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, and obtained by The Independent under a Sunshine Law request, show that, on university issues, Graves said he “complained about a liberal takeover” of the University of Missouri in 2015 and is currently worried about “shutting down conservative speakers.”

Protests led by Black students over racial issues in 2015, which helped force the resignation of President Tim Wolfe, drew worldwide attention to the Columbia campus.

Graves was party chairman from 2017 to 2019 when Gov. Eric Greitens publicly attacked Republican lawmakers who opposed him, including Wieland. In a January 2017 Facebook post, Greitens wrote that Wieland and Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, “betrayed the people they are supposed to serve last night, by voting to raise their own pay.”

Graves assured Wieland, according to the notes, that he was not connected to attacks on lawmakers launched by Greitens’ dark money operation, A New Missouri. He also said he did not personally represent Greitens when legal and impeachment issues arose in 2018 and “didn’t defend Greitens once (the) House started investigating.”

Ed Greim, a partner at Graves Garrett, represented Greitens in impeachment hearings. And Greitens’ former general counsel, Lucinda Luetkemeyer, worked for the firm before joining the governor’s office. She returned as a partner after Greitens resigned.

Graves lives in the district represented by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, Lucinda Luetkemeyer’s husband.

Addressing the party’s finances, Graves told Wieland that he raised $6 million while he was chairman and, “to keep (his) word to donors,” moved $200,000 to a committee seeking to overturn the 2018 anti-gerrymandering initiative known as Clean Missouri.

The spending left the party short of funds at the beginning of the 2019-2020 election cycle, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. William Greim, brother of Ed Greim, was chairman of the committee that received the money.

In an interview, Wieland declined to discuss the specifics of the meeting.

Wieland, a member of the Gubernatorial Appointments Committee, said he is not a proponent of Graves but he is not seeking to derail the appointment.

“I think it is going to probably be a more difficult nominee than most are,” Wieland said.

Michael Ketchmark

Ketchmark, a personal injury attorney from Leawood, Kansas, has been a player in Missouri politics for years. His connections with Democrats and Republicans, both at the statewide level and locally in the Kansas City area, are numerous.

Ketchmark and his law firm donated $250,000 to help Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon win re-election in 2012, and chipped in $175,000 to Democrat Chris Koster’s unsuccessful 2016 bid for governor.

During the 2020 election cycle, Ketchmark gave five-figure donations to political action committees supporting Schatz and fellow Republican Sens. Karla Eslinger, Dan Hegeman and Holly Rehder. He also donated $28,000 to the Missouri Republican Party and $100,000 to a PAC called Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund.

The lion’s share of his 2020 donations went to Uniting Missouri PAC, which was formed to support Gov. Mike Parson. Ketchmark gave the PAC more than $600,000.

He has retained his ties to Democrats as well.

When Quinton Lucas was running for Kansas City mayor in 2019, Ketchmark donated $53,000 to Freedom, Inc., Kansas City’s long-standing Black political organization which had endorsed Lucas a month prior. He later donated nearly $60,000 to a political action committee connected to the Kansas City firefighters union, which had also endorsed Lucas.

More recently, Lucas was among the guests invited to watch the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., in Ketchmark’s private suite.

“Mr. Ketchmark, a friend of the mayor’s since before his election to office, invited Mayor Lucas to visit his suite and he spent some time there visiting with Mr. Ketchmark and others,” Lucas’ spokeswoman said in an email to The Independent, adding that the mayor spent “much of the evening traveling throughout the stadium.”

Lucas and Ketchmark became friends over their shared relationship with Kansas City’s Barstow School, which the mayor attended on a scholarship and Ketchmark has been a financial supporter.

Among the other guests in Ketchmark’s Super Bowl suite last month was Steve Tilley, a lobbyist and former House speaker who has been a longtime friend and fundraiser for Parson.

Tilley, who is also a contract lobbyist for the University of Missouri System, helped facilitate at least one statehouse meeting for Graves and Ketchmark this week.

Ketchmark declined comment when reached on Thursday.

While Ketchmark has a large presence in Kansas City, his appearance wasn’t enough to help Graves make the sale with Senate Democratic Leader John Rizzo of Independence or Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City.

“I told him where I was at, which is that it is very difficult for someone who was a former chair of the Republican Party to get Democratic support in that position,” Rizzo said.

The nasty tone of Republican campaigns under Graves’ leadership doesn’t help his case, Rizzo said.

“I think their response is that the past actions of someone volunteering personal time to work for their party shouldn’t impact his ability to serve on the board,” Rizzo said.

In their conversation, Razer said he and Graves focused on education issues and found some common ground. For example, he said, Graves said the University of Missouri Extension needs to increase its visibility as the local presence of the school and he agrees with that.

That, however, was not enough to overcome his other issues with Graves, Razer said.

“I don’t believe I will be voting for him,” he said.

If all 10 Senate Democrats oppose the appointment, Graves needs the votes of at least 17 of 24 Republicans to win confirmation, and that would require Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe to break a tie.

At their weekly news conference, Schatz and Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, declined to speculate on whether Graves would prevail.

“If I made a prediction,” Schatz said, “somebody would try to prove me wrong.”

The Independent’s Jason Hancock contributed to this story.

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: info@missouriindependent.com.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.