JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri lawmakers are forbidden from accepting free meals worth more than $5 from lobbyists – unless they're giving an official speech at the dinner. Then it's OK. Free tickets to sports events such as St. Louis Cardinals or Kansas City Royals baseball games also are banned – unless a lawmaker is throwing out the first pitch.
The Missouri Ethics Commission outlined those exceptions along with various others Monday as it released a series of interpretations about what state lawmakers and their staff can and can't do under the "Clean Missouri" amendment approved by voters in 2018.
The amendment cracked down on a Capitol culture of lobbyist freebies while also implementing a new method of mapping out state House and Senate districts that will try to maximize "partisan fairness" and "competitiveness" starting with the 2022 elections.
But in practice, the amendment left plenty of gray areas that the Ethic Commission is now shading right or wrong in response to more than two dozen specific questions posed by legislators and staff who remain anonymous. As a whole, the answers from the Ethics Commission open the way for lawmakers to exceed the $5 gift limit so long as they are receiving something while performing an official duty or service.
Clean Missouri campaign director Sean Nicholson said some of the panel's interpretations could open loopholes for lawmakers and lobbyists to avoid the voters' intent.
Free lobbyists meals were one of the main focuses of the constitutional amendment. The $5 limit effectively put an end to most of those.
But the Ethics Commission determined it's OK for a lawmaker to eat a more expansive meal sponsored by a group that lobbies the Legislature if the lawmaker is invited as the main speaker, is providing a legislative report or is being honored for his or her legislative work.
"If your presence at the event is a necessary part of your official duties, and you are performing a service in your official capacity, then the meal that complements the event is incidental to the event and not subject to the limitations," the Ethics Commission determined in an advisory opinion signed by Executive Director Elizabeth Ziegler.
Nicholson said that could create problems.
"I don't think it's hard to imagine scenarios where this would be abused," he said.
The ethics panel drew the line, however, at accepting a free plaque as part of a meal honoring a lawmaker.
"Unlike accepting a meal that is provided in conjunction with an official event or meeting, accepting a personally engraved plaque is not a necessary part of your official duties," the Ethics Commission said.
The commission also addressed several questions about free sports tickets, which once were a popular perk for lawmakers. All of Missouri's professional sports teams are registered as lobbying entities.
The Ethics Commission said it's OK for a lawmaker to receive a free ticket to a game, so long as the lawmaker is participating in an official capacity, such as throwing out the first pitch.
"It certainly seems like this is pushing up against the outer bounds about what seems like a reasonable official act," Nicholson said.
For those who buy tickets, it's fine to accept the free promotional trinkets passed out to fans or to win a random drawing for a prize basket, the Ethics Commission said in response to a question from a legislative employee.
Yet it ruled out some other free items available to the public.
For example, groups that lobby the Legislature occasionally perform free eye exams, blood pressure screenings or acupuncturist treatments at the Capitol that are available to anyone as part of a public awareness campaign. The Ethics Commission advised that lawmakers should not accept those services if they are valued at more than $5.