Attorney Todd Graves, left, and state Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, enjoy a light moment March 31, 2021, during a hearing on Graves’ nomination to the University of Missouri Board of Curators. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)
A bipartisan coalition of state Senators was unable to stop politically connected Kansas City attorney Todd Graves from winning a seat on the University of Missouri Board of Curators.
After a two-round filibuster — three hours last week and eight more hours ending around 1 a.m. Wednesday — the Senate voted 19-13 to give the former state Republican Party chairman a six-year term on the board.
Only one Democrat, Sen. Brian Williams of Ferguson, joined with Republicans to support Graves. Four Republicans — Sens. Bill Eigel of Weldon Spring, Denny Hoskins of Warrensburg, Mike Moon of Ash Grove and Paul Wieland of Imperial — voted against Graves along with nine Democrats.
Early in the evening, Graves was nearby, monitoring the progress of the debate first from a seat in the Senate gallery and later was outside the office of Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville.
Graves lives in Luetkemeyer’s district.
“I have nothing to say,” he said when asked for comment on the filibuster.
The end came soon after Williams hinted to Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, that Graves backers might resort to a motion to cut off debate, rarely used in the Senate.
The “nuclear” option, Williams said, would upend the remainder of the session.
The Democrats who had used most of the floor time then returned control to Wieland and Hoskins.
Hoskins said he had no particular problems with Graves but was upset with a process that pushed a vote before all remaining questions were answered.
The leadership should have slowed down the process, Hoskins said.
“There is a bar that has been crossed tonight,” he said.
Wieland made one last effort to convince his fellow Senators that Graves was unfit for the board.
The university repaired its reputation following inept handling of racial and other issues on the Columbia campus in 2015, Wieland said, and has strong leadership in Mun Choi and the current board. Seats on the governing board are among the most important positions the state can bestow, he said.
Graves has not given satisfactory answers on several questions, Wieland said. Early in the debate, Wieland said Graves was “flippant” in his answers during a March 31 appearance before the Gubernatorial Appointments Committee.
“This is of great concern to me,” Wieland said. “In the future, should a situation arise with the university, can we expect this nominee to be responsive to the Missouri Senate?”
When the opponents were exhausted, Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Cosby, called for the vote without commenting on the debate.
Questions of honesty
Gov. Mike Parson nominated Graves on March 18 for the Sixth Congressional District seat held by former state Sen. Phil Snowden, who’s term expired on Jan. 1. Parson chose Graves, former chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, over attorney Lisa Weixelman, who had backing from several regional leaders and Choi, and Blake Hurst, former president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.
Parson also nominated Keith Holloway of Cape Girardeau for the Eighth District seat currently held by David Steelman of Rolla, but he has not appeared before the Gubernatorial Appointments Committee.
Graves is the lead partner in Graves Garrett LLC, a Kansas City law firm that includes among its attorneys former acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker and Lucinda Luetkemeyer, who served as general counsel for former Gov. Eric Greitens and is married to state Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville.
Graves is a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, and his brother is 6th District U.S. Rep. Sam Graves. He was Republican Party chairman from 2017 to 2019 and his law firm provided legal defense for former Gov. Eric Greitens during House impeachment hearings.
Graves has close connections to major Republican Party donors, including the late Stanley Herzog of St. Joseph. Graves is chairman of the Herzog Foundation, which describes itself as a “several-hundred-million-dollar endowment from the late-Stanley Herzog” to “support the advancement and acceleration of Christian education.
Another major donor, attorney Mike Ketchmark, joined Graves during visits with Senators as he sought votes in the confirmation fight.
In the debate, Wieland zeroed in on Graves’ public honesty, use of party funds and how his firm uses political connections to get business. The answers he said were incomplete or unsatisfactory included his explanation of a changing story about his departure from the U.S. Attorney’s office in 2006. Graves at first stated it was voluntary, then a year later said he left a “toxic environment” and before it was revealed he was fired.
Wieland also said Graves never gave an adequate answer showing he had authority to transfer $200,000 from the state GOP to a political action committee in his last months as chairman.
And on the floor, Wieland questioned whether a $400,000 contract for Graves Garrett to investigate the Missouri Gaming Commission was somehow compensation for the state’s refusal to pay for its defense of Greitens during impeachment hearings.
During the hearing, Wieland asked Graves if his client list included anyone currently on the board and Graves said it did not. When he asked if Graves’ client list included anyone who is a registered lobbyist for the university, Graves did not answer.
“I am not going to start playing battleship with my clients,” Graves told Wieland.
The question about Graves followed revelations by curator Steelman that he raised objections that one of the system’s lobbyists — former House Speaker Steve Tilley — was using his connections to the university to seek business for other clients.
Tilley has been working behind the scenes to get Graves confirmed.
Curators serve six-year terms and govern the four-campus system that also operates a major hospital and health care network in Central Missouri and a network of University of Missouri Extension offices in every county.
It is an unpaid position.
Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City and a graduate of the MU Journalism School in Columbia and the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School, said during the debate that she doesn’t want anything to disrupt current initiatives at the university.
“I am proud of our system,” Washington said. “I understand our history. We don’t need any voice on the Board of Curators that will stop the growth we are going through.”
Choi has made his relationship with lawmakers a priority, and it has paid dividends in terms of goodwill, if not in scarce state tax dollars. He is also committed to leaving a lasting imprint on the university.
Soon after taking over the university in 2017, Choi said he wanted to remain on the job for at least 10 years. The longest tenure of any president since the system was created in 1963 is seven years.
Under Choi’s direction, the university has undergone a centralization that includes combining the role of chancellor of the Columbia campus with the job of system president. The present board approved the arrangement last year.
Part of what has brought Choi strong support is the promise of the NextGen Precision Health Institute, which will be housed in a $200 million research facility currently under construction. The financing has been arranged with almost no state support, with university reserves and bonds bearing the majority of the cost. Choi has been careful to integrate researchers from the St. Louis, Kansas City and Rolla campuses into the project.
But the centralization has also brought concerns that the system is becoming too focused on the original campus in Columbia.
With four seats available for appointment, Parson was urged by leaders from the Kansas City and St. Louis areas to consider naming curators who had close ties to other campuses. Eight of the nine current curators hold degrees from the Columbia campus and none hold degrees from any other system campus.
That won’t change with Parson’s first two appointments. Graves and Holloway both hold degrees from the Columbia campus but not from any of the other three.
Under state law, no more than two curators can be appointed from any of the state’s eight congressional districts. Along with Snowden and Steelman, Julia Brncic and Maurice Graham from the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts, respectively, are serving through the end of expired terms.
State law also requires that no more than five curators can be members of the same political party. Graves’ confirmation makes the current lineup four Republicans, three Democrats and two independents. That would not change if Holloway, a Republican, is confirmed.
Brncic is an independent and Graham is a Democrat. Parson may choose one more Republican and for one of the open seats and must choose either a Democrat or an independent for the other.
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