The Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City is looking into the case of former state Senator Robin Wright-Jones, who faces fines from a state commission for breaking campaign finance laws.
An investigation of the St. Louis Democrat’s campaign committee by the Missouri Ethics Commission in 2013 found eight earlier violations of rules and regulations.
Wright-Jones served in the Senate from 2008-2012, but was defeated in her reelection primary by current office holder Jamilah Nasheed. Her attorney claims the investigation cost her a second term.
The Ethics Commission fined her $270,000 in May of 2013 for various violations, including the use of campaign finance money for personal expenses. Wright-Jones’ disclosure problems began in 2010 and 2011, when she blamed a number of reporting discrepancies on her treasurer, who had fallen ill.
The commission found she and her committee failed to report expenditures and contributions by state deadlines and improperly spent money on personal items such as telephones and clothing. Wright-Jones appealed the Ethics Commission’s decision to the Administrative Hearing Commission, which considers cases involving state agencies and individuals.
The Administrative Commission reduced the fine to just over $229,900, ultimately requiring 10% of that amount, $22,900, to be paid within 90 days. The balance would be suspended as long as there were no more campaign violations within two-years.
A review by a circuit court at the request of Wright-Jones affirmed the Administrative Commissions decision, leading to the former Senator’s appeal to the Supreme Court.
Appearing before the high bench, St. Louis Attorney Bernard Edwards claimed the Ethics Commission misinterpreted Missouri Senate rules in determining Wright-Jones misused money on personal items.
“There’s nothing in the record that show’s that she used any money for personal use, other than their (Ethics Commission) judgement that the amount of money reimbursed by the Missouri Senate, under its rules, was somehow an unnecessary expense,” said Edwards.
Among other things, Wright-Jones argues the Ethics Commission, as an administrative agency, doesn’t have the authority to assess fees or fines.
She also contends that, as a state agency or commission, it’s breaking the state constitution by issuing a fine as punishment. Bernard, her attorney, said only a court could hand down such penalties. He further said the fines violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because they were excessive.
Representing the Ethics Commission, attorney Joshua Divine defended the size of the penalties imposed on Wright-Jones. He noted the commission found that Wright-Jones and her campaign failed to disclose $69,000 in contributions, and nearly $150,000 in expenditures. Divine, a lawyer with the state Attorney General’s office, suggested those violations were proportional to the fines levied on Wright-Jones.
In attempting to shoot down Wright-Jones’ argument that the penalties violated the Eighth Amendment, he mentioned that the U.S. Supreme Court had only found a single violation under the Amendment’s excessive fines clause.
Divine said Wright-Jones and her committee failed to disclose roughly 800 expenditures and campaign contributions, which he called a major accountability failure to citizens. “The individuals were deprived of the information they were rightfully entitled to by law,” said Divine. “And these fees merely seek to serve a restitutionary purpose for that violation.”
Edwards has represented Wright-Jones, a three-term State House member before she became a Senator, for several years in her ongoing dispute with the Ethics Commission. He asserted in front of the Supreme Court Tuesday that a complaint was improperly made public from inside the commission.
“They talked about…she bought some shoes, or she bought all this personal stuff like she was the Vice President of the United States going on a wardrobe spree. This was in the election. The lack of confidentiality over this caused Senator Robin Wright-Jones to lose the election. There’s no doubt about it.”
The case involving Right-Jones, a real estate broker and former public housing administrator, was one of three heard by the high court Tuesday. The judges could issue a decision at any time, although the bench typically takes several weeks to months before it delivers an opinion.