In 1991, then-Missouri Attorney General Bill Webster’s ascension to become the next governor seemed inevitable. He had the looks, charisma, campaign cash and the connections.
But then a controversy erupted over whether his office was giving preferential treatment to donors when it came to state contracts. A federal investigation ensued. Webster’s reputation took a huge hit.
A crowd of political rivals emerged, including fellow Republican Roy Blunt, who launched a vicious TV ad campaign. Webster’s political plans disintegrated, and he eventually ended up in prison after pleading guilty to charges unrelated to the original allegations. Democrat Mel Carnahan became the surprise victor in the rocky and expensive 1992 contest for governor.
Fast forward 23 years, and current state Attorney General Chris Koster now finds himself facing unwanted comparisons.
A Republican turned Democrat, Koster long has been seen as the state’s strongest 2016 candidate for governor. He has the looks, charisma, campaign cash and connections.
Over the past year, Koster has become an influential leader of the Missouri Democratic Party and among its top donors and money-raisers.
But now, Koster also faces controversy. A New York Times article uses him as Exhibit A in a broader look at whether corporations and lobbyists are having undue influence over state attorneys general. And now his inevitability is looking not quite as inevitable.
Although Koster denies any improper actions, the New York Times article has energized speculation — particularly among Republicans — that Koster might face a primary challenge for governor from U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
McCaskill has said in an interview that she has no such plans. But some other Democrats, long wary of Koster's GOP background, may also consider taking him on.
George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, said the allegations laid out in Times article are politically damaging — regardless of whether they are true.
Asserted Connor: “This puts a chink in what’s supposed to be the invincible armor of Chris Koster.”
For Republicans, the professor said, “This is great stuff.”
Ties actions to donations
Among other things, the Times article details how Koster appeared to kill his office’s probe into whether the firm marketing 5-Hour Energy, a caffeinated drink, was using deceptive advertising. Koster also is accused of agreeing to settlements in other cases, some involving Pfizer and At&T, that put less money in state coffers than Missouri could have received.
The story then highlights the campaign donations that Koster received from the corporations and lobbyists involved. And it attempts to link one of the lower-than-desired settlements to Koster’s appearance as a speaker at a Pfizer conference, discussing how corporations and government can be more cooperative.
Koster’s office issued a sharp statement Wednesday afternoon disputing the story’s characterizations. “This attorney general’s office has consistently protected Missouri consumers from fraud, regardless of the identity of those responsible,” the statement said.
“Contrary to the inferences contained in today’s New York Times article, this office reviews each case on its merits. We have taken legal action against Pfizer at least six times and have taken legal action against AT&T at least twice,” Koster’s statement went on. "Together, these cases have resulted in millions of dollars on behalf of Missouri consumers. Currently, Missouri is among the 44 states in the country that have not filed suit against 5 Hour Energy.”
Koster told the Times that one reason he killed the 5 Hour Energy suit was that he didn’t see the merit. The attorney general noted that he also consumed the drink.
Overall, his statement concluded, “Today’s article in the New York Times misrepresents the facts, distorting events to create an appearance of impropriety where none exists.”
Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, was the first state official, in either party, to publicly blast Koster over the article’s assertions. Jones said in a statement Wednesday that the General Assembly may look into what he called “apparent pay-to-play schemes.”
Jones accused Koster of committing “an egregious violation of the public’s trust.”
However, it’s unclear how Jones will follow through. He is leaving office in months and is considering his own 2016 bid for statewide office — possibly attorney general.
And Jones also recently weathered his own controversy regarding allegations about "pay to play" regarding a limited liability corporation that he set up, Missouri Freedom Alliance, and whether it was used to provide political help to his law clients. Jones had denied any assertions, and opened the firm’s records to this reporter for review about a year ago.
Spotlight on Missouri’s lack of donation limits
The controversy over Koster also highlights the impact of Missouri’s lack of campaign donation limits — ironically, put in place in 1995, in part, in response to the Webster controversy.
Under GOP control, the General Assembly eliminated the limits in 2008 with the support of then-Gov. Matt Blunt. Then-Attorney General Jay Nixon — a leader for limits during the 1990s — blasted the decision. But since becoming governor in 2009, Nixon has failed to persuade legislators to change their minds.
Koster was in the state Senate at the time, initially as a Republican (he switched in 2007). He had cast early votes for eliminating the limits. He has indicated since then that he’s not in favor of reinstating donation limits, and he’s rarely mentioned the matter in political speeches.
The Times story notes that Koster has collected a number of six-figure donations since 2008 from the Democratic Attorneys General Association. He told the newspaper that he lamented that such groups needed to exist.
Connor called such a comment “disingenuous … He regrets they exist, but he takes money from them.”
“That’s not an answer that will ring true with voters,’’ the professor added.
But Koster has been insulated from much criticism on his position on campaign donations because his likely Republican rivals — state Auditor Tom Schweich and former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway — also have taken huge donations from individuals and groups. And neither Republican is calling for restoring donation limits
Hanaway has attracted attention, and criticism, over her recent acceptance of a $750,000 campaign donation from wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield, the state’s top donor. Koster previously also collected money from Sinquefield.
Hanaway took aim late Wednesday at Koster:
“Attorney General Chris Koster’s willingness to accept large campaign donations in exchange for ending investigations of violators of Missouri law exposes Chris Koster's real record. Today’s New York Times story shows that General Koster is willing to neglect his professional duties and bend his standards to gain political advantage. General Koster has campaigned in the past on the phrase ‘All Prosecutor, No Politics’. Today’s revelations make it clear that Chris Koster is all about politics.”
Meanwhile, Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, says the effect of the New York Times article on Koster will depend on what happens next.
Voters are being inundated with ads that routinely allege “shady connections and questions about people’s integrity,’’ Robertson said, so he’s wary about how much damage one news story can do to Koster.
“If there are other charges that come up to substantiate the narrative that Koster can’t be trusted, that’s where the real problem will come in for Koster,” Robertson said. “The real damage is the narrative that will be used by opponents.”
Koster, by the way, knew Webster. Koster interned in the attorney general's office in late 1991 and then worked as an assistant attorney general during the last year of Webster's term.