AT&T Donation to Koster Highlights Conflict-of-Interest Policy in Missouri Governor Campaign

The telecom company had a previous contribution refunded after Koster instituted a conflict-of-interest policy related to his work as attorney general. AT&T then wrote another identical check after enough time had passed.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster (AP Photo/Denny Medley)

In August, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s campaign for governor received a $10,000 contribution from AT&T. It’s one of many checks the telecommunications giant or its PAC writes to political candidates every year.

What’s unusual in this case is that Koster, a Democrat, had already returned a $10,000 check from AT&T earlier this year, as part of his campaign’s conflict-of-interest policy against accepting funds from entities  that Koster’s office investigates.

It’s part of a long-running story that started in October 2014, when Koster was a main character in a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigation detailing how corporate lobbyists seek influence with the state attorneys general who regulate their industries. The Times highlighted Koster’s relationship—including campaign donations—and correspondence with the lobbying firm Dickstein Shapiro and three of its clients: 5-hour Energy, Pfizer, and AT&T. In one example, Koster’s office “took a step that questioned the legal strategy of a multi-state investigation of AT&T’s billing practices” weeks after a conversation with a Dickstein lobbyist.

Koster denied that he ever took actions intended to benefit Dickstein’s clients as a result of the firm’s lobbying or campaign contributions, but he responded by instituting a strict new conflict-of-interest policy in his gubernatorial campaign—in the absence of any actual regulation in Missouri, which has some of the country’s most relaxed campaign-finance laws. Koster placed a self-imposed ban on certain donations, including those from companies, law firms, or individuals connected to investigations in the attorney general’s office. The policy also banned those companies from donating to his campaign within 90 days of an investigation’s resolution and forbade contributions from campaign staff and lobbyist gifts.

Though Koster had questioned the investigation, Missouri remained involved in the AT&T lawsuit last year. The state ended up being part of a 50-state settlement agreement reached with AT&T in October 2014 over the company’s mobile billing practices. So when AT&T donated $10,000 to the Koster campaign in January, it raised some eyebrows, and Koster’s campaign returned the donation in April.

Now, that same $10,000 has shown up in Koster’s campaign fund again—clear of the self-imposed three-month fundraising ban, but still inextricably connected to Koster’s official business. Since public-records laws don’t apply to campaigns, there’s no paper trail that could shed light on any communications between Koster’s campaign and AT&T (or other donors) about the timing of contributions.

Koster campaign manager Andrew Whalen dismissed concerns over the most recent AT&T donation. He said no other attorneys general in the country—nor any other candidates in Missouri, which has no formal restrictions on officeholders accepting lobbyist gifts or later becoming lobbyists themselves—have adopted a conflict-of-interest policy like Koster’s.

“The policy has always been very clear since it was first implemented at this point nearly a year ago, that there is a 90-day window after a case has been settled before an individual or a company with litigation before the office can make a contribution,” Whalen said. “For individuals to question what is without question the most comprehensive policy in America is just partisan hackery at its worst.”

Whalen said Koster’s campaign has returned or rejected more than $100,000 worth of contributions so far this year due to the new policy. That figure amounts to over 1 percent of the total funds Koster has raised in that time.

No matter what actions Koster takes, the practice of corporate lobbyists attempting to influence attorneys general extends far beyond Missouri. Three Dickstein Shapiro attorneys who featured prominently in the Times article—Lori Kalani, Bernard Nash, and JB Kelly—along with a fourth, Milton Marquis, left the firm in May to head up a new “State Attorneys General Practice” with the firm Cozen O’Connor.

Nash and Marquis were listed in the Times report as past campaign contributors to Koster, but neither Nash and Marquis nor Dickstein Shapiro have donated to Koster since the report published last year. Pfizer and 5-hour Energy, which were also subjects of the Times story, donated a combined $35,500 to Koster’s campaigns between 2009 and 2014, but they have not donated to Koster this year—an absence that only makes AT&T’s contribution stand out more.