Missouri earns ‘F’ for judicial financial disclosure

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The Center for Public Integrity evaluated the disclosure rules for judges in the highest state courts nationwide. The level of disclosure in the 50 states and the District of Columbia was poor, with 43 receiving failing grades, making it difficult for the public to identify potential conflicts of interest on the bench. Despite the lack of information in the public records, the Center’s investigation found nearly three dozen conflicts, questionable gifts and entanglements among top judges around the country. Here’s what the Center found in Missouri:

Strengths:

Missouri asks for complete reimbursement information for travel by judges, their spouses and dependent children, though only for travel outside of the state. It also asks for other affiliations of the judges and their family members such as union membership or income earned from any political action committees.

Weaknesses:

The state is one of just three that does not release financial disclosure reports to the public except when requested in person, limiting the accessibility of the information. The state also seeks less detailed information in some areas now than it did in 2010. Back then, judges were required to describe any gifts received worth more than $100 and estimate how much they were worth. But now the forms ask for the donor’s name and address but do not inquire as to what the gift is or its value. The cut-off for which gifts must be disclosed is also higher, with judges only needing to disclose gifts worth $200 or more. The state also does not ask how much money the judge makes in income from salary or outside sources, which it used to do.

Highlights:

Justice Mary Russell’s 2010 filing disclosed that her husband, James Russell, is a lobbyist. “He does not provide his income information to me,” she wrote in the section asking for details about the compensation paid to spouses or dependent children. She noted that he filed his own disclosure forms with the state.

But her subsequent filings did not mention his job, only indicating that he was filing a separate disclosure form. Jim Russell is still listed as an active lobbyist in the state, most recently representing the Missouri Agribusiness Association and, until June, farm supply and marketing cooperative MFA Inc. Where the form specifically asks for disclosure of any relatives who are lobbyists, she wrote "N/A" in both 2011 and 2012.

In 2012, she joined the court in a decision to strike down an ethics reform bill based on the argument that the act had too many measures not related to its original title and contents. Among the grab bag of reforms shot down: greater powers for the Missouri Ethics Commission to investigate officials, including lobbyists, and handle conflicts of interest. The court system’s spokeswoman Beth Riggert said the justice declined to comment.