Missouri Capitol

Missouri Capitol

The passing of former Missouri House Speaker Bob Griffin on July 7 reminds me of a conflict I’ve seen so often with public officials between dedication to serving the public versus seeking financial or political gain.

In his historic 15 years as speaker, Griffin accomplished so much and respect from his colleagues of both sides of the aisle. Among his legislative accomplishments as speaker was approval of his 1993 bill to raise the tobacco tax to finance expanded Medicaid health coverage for the lower income and school health care services for students.

Griffin knew how to get difficult issues cleared through the legislature. But on the other side is his federal court conviction of corruption that was upheld by an appellate court decision which outlined a pattern of Griffin’s self-serving financial interests.

The conviction centered on Griffin accepting money from a lobbyist, Cathryn Simmons, for recommending that outside interests hire her to pursue issues before the legislature. After Griffin’s conviction, several lobbyists questioned me how making a recommendation is a crime.

At the time, I tended to agree. Legislators make all sorts of recommendations to outside interests as to how better pursue their interests in the legislature. But the federal appeals court decisions added for me a much different perspective to Griffin’s case — he got paid for his recommendations.

The federal appeals court cited lower court findings that Griffin regularly accepted “bribes” from Simmons to recommend her as a lobbyist for interests before the legislature over which Griffin had major power. The decision went into detail about Griffin’s recommendation for Simmons to be hired as a lobbyist for a gas tax for highway construction.

“We reject Griffin’s argument that his illegal conduct involved a gratuity and not a bribe because he was not paid the money before he made the recommendation that Simmons be hired as a lobbyist,” the court held.

The court also wrote “Griffin now admits that he made this recommendation with the understanding that Simmons would pay him for his efforts.”

Another issue was Simmons’ lobbying Griffin for his removal of a legislator from a committee that regulates expansion of health care facilities. Reading that appeals court decision made me better understand the difference between a bribe versus a recommendation involving a public official.

And I was staggered at how deep Griffin had fallen.

Simmons ultimately agreed to a plea deal to testify against Griffin. Her plea probably led Griffin to plead guilty for which he was sentenced to four years in federal prison, commuted by fellow Democrat Pres. Bill Clinton.

I confess, I write this column with hesitation.

“Don’t speak ill of the dead,” is a near mantra for old-style journalists. After all, Griffin in his historically long term as speaker accomplished so much for Missouri.

On the other hand, Griffin’s story should be a warning for current and future state leaders about the dangers of financial and political enticements. And it also demonstrates the importance for reporters to dig into those entanglements.

I confess I was impressed by Griffin’s passion to pursue issues of public good while also being a tough political operative.

My wife remembers I hugged him years after he left public office at what I think was his last appearance in the state Capitol.

To be honest, I don’t know why.

Maybe it was recognition of how much he had contributed to our state, but I should have known better. Shortly after Mel Carnahan became governor, I sensed he had concerns about Griffin.

So, as I write this column I remain conflicted about Bob Griffin.

He was one of the most effective House speakers I’ve covered. But he also had obvious conflict-of-interest and criminal issues.

That conflict should be a reminder that voters as well as we journalists should explore the criminal and financial entanglements of those who claim to promote the public interest.

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism.

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