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JEFFERSON CITY — Contrary to the office's ethics policy, the Missouri attorney general's office hasn't audited Attorney General Eric Schmitt's compliance with conflict-of-interest rules meant to combat the perception of "pay-to-play" politics within the agency.

The ethics policy states the attorney general shall not accept campaign contributions from anyone under investigation by the agency, or from anyone with a pending bid for a state contract over which the attorney general's office has decision-making authority. 

The policy also requires "regular internal audits" to ensure compliance, according to a copy of the policy obtained by the Post-Dispatch through an open-records request.

Former Attorney General Josh Hawley's predecessor, Democrat Chris Koster, had been dogged by a 2014 New York Times investigation showing his administration eased up on companies that had donated to his campaign.

"Few campaign contributions are more unseemly than when the target of a government investigation contributes to the official conducting the investigation," the policy, signed by Hawley, says. "These contributions give the appearance of outright bribery of law enforcement."

Hawley, a Republican, won election to the U.S. Senate last November, and Gov. Mike Parson appointed Schmitt as Hawley's replacement. Schmitt, a Republican, took office in January.

The Post-Dispatch requested a copy of the conflict-of-interest policy in October.

After requesting and receiving the same information, Elad Gross, a Democrat running for attorney general, on Oct. 28 asked for copies of all "regular internal audits" conducted since the policy took effect.

Terry Brady, general counsel for the attorney general's office, wrote to Gross on Thursday that there were "no records responsive to your request."

"The policy is enforced using regular audits," Gross said on Sunday. "Without audits, this policy is just words on a page."

The attorney general's office told the Post-Dispatch that internal audits are a major undertaking, and that the office "regularly reviews" its ethics policies.

"The office regularly reviews its policies, including the conflict of interest policy, to ensure they’re serving their purpose," said Chris Nuelle, spokesman for Schmitt's office. "The AGO has a very strong conflict of interest policy, and we strive every day to be as ethical and professional as possible."

Schmitt's campaign requires donors to self-report whether they are under investigation.

Conflict-of-interest policies in the attorney general's office are notoriously difficult to enforce, according to former Koster officials.

Like Schmitt, Koster's policy also relied on donors to self-report whether they were under investigation. A Koster deputy said in 2015 it was unrealistic to expect a campaign to police the issue because only the attorney general’s office knows what it is investigating.

Though both Schmitt's campaign and the attorney general's office prohibit contributions from entities under investigation, it is not clear whether a political action committee allied with Schmitt, the MO Opportunity PAC, follows the same rules.

PACs supporting Missouri candidates have proliferated in recent years because of 2016 limits on direct contributions to candidates. Now the biggest checks flow to independent committees that spend money in support of candidates.

Candidate campaigns and PACs are allowed to coordinate fundraising efforts, but not spending.

When asked in an October interview whether the MO Opportunity PAC followed the same conflict-of-interest policy as Schmitt's campaign, Schmitt said: "You'd have to talk to them about that."

Carl Struby, the treasurer of the PAC, has not responded to multiple phone calls seeking more information about the group.

The Post-Dispatch reported Saturday that Schmitt's campaign has received at least $150,000 from St. Louis developer Paul McKee's family members and entities tied to them over the course of Schmitt's 11-year political career.

Schmitt's office settled a tax credit fraud lawsuit in June with McKee's NorthSide Regeneration for a fraction of what Hawley's administration had sought.

Schmitt has said he had no involvement in the tax-credit case, but his office said he did not recuse himself. It said such a recusal was unnecessary. The office did not say whether Schmitt approved the settlement.

In September, the political action committee backing Schmitt accepted a $10,000 contribution from a fund associated with Joseph McKee, a St. Louis developer who is the son of Paul McKee.

Gross, on Sunday, released a plan he said would tighten current ethics policies.

Among the provisions is a rule prohibiting contributions from the targets of investigations, even after an investigation concludes. Gross also said if his office investigates someone, his campaign would return or donate to charity any contributions received from that person within the last two years.

Gross has also pledged not to accept corporate money and said he will not form a PAC in order to benefit from large donations.

Gross would have to defeat fellow Democrat Richard Finneran in the August 2020 primary to challenge Schmitt in next year's November election.

Jack Suntrup • 573-556-6184

@JackSuntrup on Twitter

jsuntrup@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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