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Three weeks before Missouri Gov. Mike Parson vetoed legislation that would have undermined a federally-mandated vehicle emissions testing program, the spouse of his policy director registered as a lobbyist for the lone state contractor providing those tests.
Last month, Parson vetoed House Bill 661. The bill would have removed Jefferson, Franklin and St. Charles counties from the program, which is designed to bring the St. Louis area into compliance with federal air quality standards. St. Louis and St. Louis County were not targeted by the legislation.
Parson, along with many lawmakers, cited as justification a threat from the Environmental Protection Agency to impose sanctions if Missouri removed the counties from the program. The legislation was also stridently opposed by environmental groups.
But the registration of Jay Hahn, a lobbyist married to Parson’s policy director, Kayla Hahn, has raised questions about the process and whether the arrangement ran afoul of the state’s conflict of interest laws.
“Unfortunately, even the appearance of corruption can taint what otherwise might have been a smart policy and can decrease citizens’ faith that their government represents them,” Benjamin Singer, executive director of Show Me Integrity, a grassroots group that promotes ethical government, said in a statement.
Neither Hahn nor the company he represents, Worldwide Environmental Products, returned messages or emails seeking comment for this story.
Contacted by a reporter, Kelli Jones, the governor’s spokeswoman, requested questions be submitted by email. She never responded to the questions or to a follow-up email.
On June 18 Jay Hahn registered as a lobbyist for the California-based company, which advertises itself as the sole contractor with the state to provide equipment and services for the vehicle inspection program. The state’s contract portal shows the company receives $1 million each year for that contract.
According to emails obtained by The Independent through an open records request, Kayla Hahn was included on communications related to HB 661 from the state’s Department of Natural Resources after Jay Hahn registered as Worldwide Environmental Products’ lobbyist. The records did not show that she sent any emails about the bill after her husband registered as the company’s lobbyist. Before June 18, she sent emails clarifying whether unrelated language in the bill had been vetoed before.
On July 9, Parson vetoed the bill.
“By exempting such noncompliant counties, Missouri would violate the federal Clean Air Act and would lose significant funding for certain highway projects and grants in the St. Louis area in the amount of $52 million annually,” Parson said in his veto letter to the Missouri General Assembly.
Singer, who ran a state ballot initiative campaign on ethics reform and redistricting, known as Clean Missouri, said Missourians “should continue expecting politics as usual” until the state has stronger ethics laws.
“This is not a bad apple, it’s a rotten system,” Singer said.
He advocated that anyone with a family member with paid lobbying clients should be barred from public service.
In Missouri, it is unlawful for public officials or their families to receive personal financial gain because of their office. A guide compiled by the Missouri Ethics Commission says the laws include restrictions on “receipt of additional compensation via employment, providing services, or conducting business with a political subdivision, and influencing decisions which may result in financial gain.”
That could include a lobbyist gaining access to state officials through their spouse’s official position, said Kedric Payne, senior director of ethics for the Campaign Legal Center.
“In a situation where somebody potentially lobbied their spouse or their spouse’s boss, it would give the appearance of a violation of this rule,” Payne said.
It’s not clear what direct contact Jay Hahn had with the governor’s office about the bill. Payne said such conflicts — or appearances of conflicts — are generally resolved by officials stating that they don’t allow their spouse to lobby them or their office.
Without clear evidence Jay Hahn got special access because of Kayla Hahn’s position, he said, it’s difficult to show a direct violation of Missouri’s ethics law.
“This is a situation where the official has to answer questions,” Payne said, “and it can be determined from the answer of those questions whether things are done properly or not.
This story was produced by the Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy.