A lawsuit in mid-Missouri’s Cole County Circuit Court in Jefferson City seeks disclosure of information from former Governor Eric Greitens nonprofit “A New Missouri Inc.”. The organization was set up after Greitens became governor in early 2017 to support his initiatives and agenda.
Elad Gross, a 32-year-old attorney from St. Louis brought the case shortly after a House special committee dropped its investigation into Greitens for possible impeachment. The committee discontinued its probe, which included a subpoena of records from A New Missouri Inc. when Greitens resigned from office June 1st.
Gross argued at a hearing Thursday that he should have access to the records the House committee subpoenaed. Presiding Judge Jon Beetem delayed his decision on Gross’s request until he first decides in early October if the lawsuit itself will move forward. Beetem scheduled an October 4th hearing to hear arguments over A New Missouri’s motion to have the case dismissed.
In his lawsuit, Gross contends that because the nonprofit is a public benefit corporation that claims to benefit all Missourians, and has no members, then all members of the public have a right to see its records.
A New Missouri is classified as a 501 (c) (4) organization which, according to the Internal Revenue Service, must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare.
Gross says he made a request for the organization’s records under Missouri nonprofit laws and filed his lawsuit when he received no response.
Attorney Joann Sandifer of the Husch Blackwell law firm in St. Louis argued Thursday on behalf of A New Missouri Inc. She contends state law is narrow in regard to public benefit corporations that don’t have members, claiming only certain beneficiaries and recipients are entitled to inspect its records.
Sandifer stated that Gross’s request asks for disclose of many more documents than Missouri law would allow if he were to prevail in the case and said he was “bootstrapping” additional records to his court motion. She thinks Gross is improperly trying to make political advances through the courts instead of the legislature.
“We frankly think he’s using this statute and the voluminous discovery he was trying to get unsuccessfully to further a political agenda that really should be directed at the legislative body, not at the courts,” said Sandifer.
Gross’s lawsuit also names three of the nonprofit’s officers as defendants and seeks deposition from them. Sandifer said singling them out as defendants is an attempt to harass the individuals and argued that trying to get statements from them now is premature, given the uncertain future of the lawsuit.
The lead attorney defending A New Missouri is Catherine Hanaway, who has also represented former Governor Greitens’ campaign, Greitens for Missouri. Shortly after Gross filed his lawsuit in June, she called it “ridiculous”, and accused him of “being clearly a Democratic operative trying to prolong Greitens’ saga for political purposes.”
Gross told reporters after Thursday’s hearing that the label Hanaway tagged him with is incorrect. “I believe I’m still a registered independent in this state,” said Gross. “And I’m not making any money off of this, and no one is paying me to do this. It’s costing quite a bit of money to send all this mail to folks requesting it.”
Gross, who is 32 but looks much younger, has worked for Democratic elected office holders in the past. He was an assistant attorney general from 20014-2016 under Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster. Hanaway is a former Republican Speaker of the House in the Missouri legislature and is also a former U.S. Attorney.
A New Missouri, as a 501 (c) (4), is not required to identify its donors. It, like other similar organizations, has been associated with the term “dark money”. Gross acknowledges that if he wins his lawsuit, A New Missouri will still not be required to reveal its contributors, but notes it would shine a light on the nonprofit’s spending.
“This lawsuit is to find out how dark money specifically through A New Missouri Inc. was working to influence policies, campaigns, and laws in our state,” Gross said. “I think that by helping identify what that problem is, we can help identify solutions to that problem.”
Gross said Missouri laws will have to be overhauled in order for 501 (c) (4)’s to be required to report their donors.
501(c)(4) organizations can legally participate in political activity in support of or opposition to candidates for office.