Members of a special committee of the Missouri Housing Development Commission struggle with strengthening the ethics of the commission without strangling its work.
Questions of conflicts of interest have dogged the Missouri Housing Development Commission, prompting the new chairman, State Treasurer Clint Zweifel , to propose stronger ethical standards. A special committee chaired by commission member, Claudia Onate-Greim, has been considering new standards of conduct.
A recent state audit criticized the MHDC. It pointed out that commissioners are not required to recuse themselves from real or perceived conflicts of interest. The State Auditor’s Office identified two commissioners who appeared to have at least the appearance of conflicts of interest, but did not recuse themselves from voting on the projects. Another commissioner participated in projects involving an individual with whom he had a limited partnership.
News reports disclosed that Columbia developer Jeff Smith two years ago bought property from commission member Bill Luetkenhaus for $1.7 million, though Luetkenhaus paid only $932,000 for the piece two months earlier, something Zweifel says needs to stop.
Onate-Greim presided over a teleconference reviewing new standards, such as asking the elective officials on the commission to disclose possible conflicts arising from campaign contributors.
"At the end of the day we have to feel confident that every vote, everybody around the table is voting, because of the merits of the project, not for any other reason," Onate-Greim said during the teleconference. "In this case, the other reason being a campaign contribution."
Another proposal: commissioners and high-level staffers who leave the commission would not be able to join firms that do business with it for two years. MHDC Executive Director Pete Ramsel says another proposal could be tough: prohibiting financial relationships with anyone receiving benefits from the commission.
"I certainly appreciate the fact that we want to know if a developer has a relationship or a business relationship or a financial relationship with a commissioner or an employee. That certainly is what we would all like to see," Ramsel said, "but this is going to be very difficult to know where to draw the line and when to draw the line."
Ramsel pointed out that often those applying for benefits from MHDC don’t know who might be the general contractors for the project, let alone the sub-contractors. Ramsel fears regulations too tight could scare firms away from doing business with the commission undermining its mission to provide housing to the poor and elderly.
The committee hopes to have a draft ready for the full commission prior to its July 31st meeting.