By Phill Brooks
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
Of the politicians and state officials who have faced criminal charges in the decades I’ve covered this place, Roger Wilson seemed one of the least likely candidates for a criminal record.
The former Democratic governor and lieutenant governor pled guilty April 12 to federal misdemeanor charges involving an effort to hide the true source of campaign contributions to the Democratic Party through the quasi-governmental insurance organization Missouri Employers Mutual.
The charges were a shock to some of his former colleagues, including Republicans, because as a public official and later chair of the state Democratic Party, Wilson enjoyed a stellar reputation.
“It is a surprise, and a sad one to those of us who know and like Roger. The real question is, who put him up to this? This didn’t come from Roger waking up one morning and deciding to start laundering money for the first time in his career,” said Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.
Throughout his time in public office, Wilson came across as almost too honest to be an effective politician. About the harshest criticism I’d heard about Wilson was that he was too good-hearted for the rough world of politics. A former school teacher and principal, I cannot recall him ever cursing or bad-mouthing an opponent.
Compare that reputation with the other Missouri officials who have faced criminal charges over the decades.
The first major criminal conviction of a state official that I covered involved House Speaker Dick Rabbitt. In 1977, he was convicted on federal corruption charges for soliciting business for his law firm in return for favorable treatment of legislation.
Rabbitt would not be the last speaker to face criminal charges. Two decades later, the state’s longest serving House speaker, Bob Griffin, pled guilty to federal corruption charges and, like Rabbitt, went to prison.
Rod Jetton was the last Missouri House speaker to face criminal charges. His conviction, however, had nothing to do with his behavior in public office. Jetton did face a federal grand jury investigating, it was reported, campaign contributions from the porn industry and House actions derailing a bill to impose tougher regulations on porn shops. That federal investigation ended without charges.
But Jetton faced another issue — felony charges filed after a woman claimed assault during a sexual encounter. Jetton ultimately pled guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge.
The criminal conviction that had the greatest political impact in recent years involved Bill Webster, Republican attorney. At the same time he was running as the GOP candidate for governor, reports emerged of a federal investigation into charges he awarded state contracts in return for campaign contributions.
No charges were filed during the 1996 campaign, but the continuing reports helped assure Democrat Mel Carnahan’s victory.
Webster eventually pled guilty to federal charges that had nothing to do with the influence-peddling stories. Instead, he was convicted of improper use of office resources for political and personal purposes.
An earlier criminal investigation with major statewide political impact involved Gov. Warren Hearnes. For months, there were front-page news stories about extensive federal investigations into corruption in Hearnes’ administration.
In the end, not a single charge was filed against Hearnes. But the man who had been known as a reformer had his reputation tarnished. Hearnes’ political future was finished.
Before Roger Wilson, the last statewide elected official to be convicted of criminal charges was Judy Moriarty, the first woman to serve as Missouri’s Secretary of State. She was convicted of back-dating her son’s candidacy form after he had missed the filing deadline for a legislative office. A conviction led to her subsequent impeachment and removal from office.
Ironically, the Cole County prosecutor in Moriarity’s case now is the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Missouri whose office handled the recent Wilson case. Beyond that, as county prosecutor, Richard Callahan also prosecuted state Sen. Jet Banks in 1999 on a felony charge of filing false income tax returns. Banks had been the Senate’s majority leader.
That’s just a sampling of the statehouse criminal gallery.
St. Louis Sen. Jeff Smith was convicted of obstruction of justice involving false campaign finance reports. St. Louis Representative T. D. El-Amin pled guilty to soliciting a bribe. St. Louis Rep. Bob Feigenbaum pled guilty to illegal drug possession and then worked with federal agents to go after a legislative colleague, Dewey Crump, on drug charges.
It’s such a lineup that I’ve wondered if there’s something about this building or this process that tempts corruption. When I asked that of a legislator the other day, he looked in my face to express an earnest response that — yes, there are temptations here.
It’s the reason, I think, that shortly after his election as House speaker, Steve Tilley brought convicted felon Jeff Smith back to the statehouse to talk with legislators.
“I encouraged them not to succumb to any of the temptations of Jefferson City that are provided here,” Smith said after a session with the House GOP Caucus in January of 2011. Smith said he also talked about how easy it is to cross over the line between legality and illegality and how easy it is to fail to see where that line lies.
Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.