Missouri lawmakers strike a deal on crime bill after governor’s veto threat

(photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Public Safety)

House leadership backed off its insistence that a wide-ranging crime bill include stiffer penalties for lying under oath to the legislature a day after Gov. Mike Parson threatened a veto.

Parson said Tuesday that he objected to giving lawmakers more investigative power, calling it “a total power grab.” He said any bill that included the provisions would be vetoed. 

The threat appears to have worked, as lawmakers agreed to remove language pertaining to offenses against the General Assembly from a crime bill during a conference committee Wednesday morning. 

Hours later, the Senate voted to send the bill to the governor’s desk. The House is expected to follow before the session ends at 6 p.m. Friday.

Rep. David Evans, R-West Plains, said there is confusion about what the House proposal sought to achieve. Every agency in the executive branch has the power to ask a court to enforce a subpoena, he said, and the House was simply trying to give the legislature the same authority. 

“Should the General Assembly have the same power as the executive branch to enforce a subpoena?” Evans asked, later adding: “There’s nothing wrong with the bill.” 

Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, agreed. 

“I think it’s the height of absurdity that a rogue agency like the department of revenue has subpoena power, but we decide to deny ourselves that power,” he said. “We are a co-equal branch.”

When the governor made his veto threat, Onder said he initially thought, “great, let’s put it on his desk and see if he wants to veto all these things to retain the prerogatives of his branch of government over our branch.”

But in the end, both chambers agreed to set the proposal aside in order to protect the other provisions in the bill. 

“Politics is the art of what’s possible,” said Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty. “In this bill, we got most of what was possible in regards to good criminal justice reform, helping law enforcement do their jobs and making the citizens of Missouri safer.”

The bill still includes a myriad of proposals. 

It would ban police chokeholds, specifically neck restraints that restrict air flow, and prohibit an officer from having “sexual conduct” with someone they’ve detained or who is being held in jail. The bill would also help to improve background checks on officers.

Kansas City police officers would no longer be required to live within the city, and prisons would be required to provide women in custody with free tampons and pads.

The legislation also seeks to clarify a law that stops automatically charging 17-years olds as adults and provides a pay bump for county sheriffs. It also allows local prosecutors to ask a judge to throw out convictions in innocence cases.

Sen. Brian Williams, D-Ferguson, said he ran for office because he got tired of “elected officials, Democratic and Republican alike, coming back home and saying they couldn’t get anything done because they couldn’t work with one another.”

The work of the conference committee, Williams said, demonstrates both parties can still find compromise. 

Removed from the bill are the provisions that would allow the legislature to request a court order to compel witnesses to testify and empower lawmakers to grant immunity to witnesses in exchange for testimony that could be self-incriminating. They also would have increased penalties for lying to the legislature and obstructing a legislative investigation. 

The provisions were inspired by the 2018 testimony of newspaper publisher Scott Faughn, who was called before a House investigative committee after he paid $120,000 in cash to an attorney representing the ex-husband of the woman who accused former Gov. Eric Greitens of coercive and violent sexual misconduct.

Greitens has repeatedly said the money was connected to business interests upset with his decision during his time as governor to zero out a low-income housing tax credit. Faughn’s television show is sponsored by a bank in his hometown of Poplar Bluff that is highly involved in low-income housing tax credits.

Faughn said under oath that the money was for the purchase of recordings of Greitens’ alleged victim talking about physical abuse for a book he was working on — even though other journalists got the recordings for free.

The attorney he paid, however, said Faughn told him the money came from an unnamed wealthy Republican who did not like Greitens.

Faughn’s testimony has become a point of concern among some Republicans. That includes House Speaker Rob Vescovo, who publicly pushed for Greitens to be removed from office in 2018 but also expressed consternation that the source of the $120,000 that helped topple the former governor has remained a secret. 

Greitens resigned months after Faughn’s cash payments under an avalanche of scandals and criminal charges. He’s now running for U.S. Senate, and has pointed to Faughn’s cash payment as evidence that monied interests drove him from office. 

More recently, the House has regularly scuffled with the Parson administration over access to public records and testimony of department heads. 

Last week, an oversight committee railed against Department of Social Services leaders for underreporting the number of substantiated cases of abuse and neglect at youth residential facilities during a previous legislative hearing. 

Onder noted that while Faughn may have been the initial inspiration for the proposal, during his first year he led an investigation of Planned Parenthood where the targets of Senate subpoenas “thumbed their nose at us.”