Caleb Rowden, left, wants voters who care about ethics to believe that he, too, cares about ethics.
State Representative Caleb Rowden wants to move up the political ladder to the state senate, but he can't seem to escape his reputation as a gift-taking ally of Jefferson City lobbyists.
Rowden, a Republican who represents Columbia, ended his first term with the ignoble distinction of having received more lobbyist gifts than any lawmaker in the Boone County delegation. In January 2014, the Columbia Daily Tribune
reported that he'd accepted three University of Missouri football tickets from a lobbyist, prompting Rowden to vow that he would pay for his own sports tickets in the future.
But despite that pledge, Rowden appeared to get caught with his hand in the lobbyist cookie jar yet again. Missouri Ethics Commission filings revealed that he allowed a lobbyist pay for two Mizzou football tickets in September. Liberal advocacy group Progress Missouri called him a hypocrite
, noting that Rowden appeared to be accepting lobbyist gifts while simultaneously advocating a ban
on all lobbyist gifts.
"The tickets have already been paid back," Rowden told Riverfront Times
in an interview last week. Indeed, amended MEC records
now show that the lawmaker reimbursed all personal gifts from lobbyists since January 2015, leaving only the $75.14 worth of gifts that went to Rowden's staff and family members.
See also: Missouri Lawmakers Can't Hold Dinner "Hearings" at Fancy Country Clubs Anymore
To be fair, Rowden is hardly alone in benefiting from lobbyist largess. In fact, before the MEC amended Rowden's records, Progress Missouri ranked
him 151st out of the 170 legislators who don't reimburse their lobbyist gifts.
And while he once had no qualms about lobbyists paying for his food and entertainment, Rowden maintains that he now understands how laws permitting unlimited lobbyist gifts
are morally corrupting the government
look really bad to voters.
"This is something something I've evolved on, frankly," he said. "As people who set policy, we recognize that the perception is not great and we are willing to do whatever we can to restore their trust."
That's why Rowden is planning on sponsoring legislation that will ban all lobbyist gifts and implement a cooling-off period before a lawmaker can become a lobbyist — that, he hopes, will fix the perception issues.
"I may not think the vote is being bought by a steak dinner, but I certainly don't think that it will do me any harm just to pay for my own steak dinner," he said. "That's a decision that I made, a personal one. For any [legislator] who continues to take gifts until we make this change to ban lobbyist gifts, I don't fault them for that necessarily."
Clearly, Rowden doesn't want to throw his fellow lawmakers under the bus. In September, he made a remarkably similar statement during a campaign fundraiser where lobbyists dropped envelopes of money into a cloth-lined basket at the entrance of a Jefferson City bar.
"I’ve thought about the whole idea of not accepting contributions during session,” Rowden told a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter
. “Certainly, there are potential perception problems there that, I think, 99 times out of a hundred, are not justified. It’s just a coincidence if something happens the way that it does. But we’ve got to work on those perception problems.”
Rowden's campaign promises of ethics reform come at a time when the state's image is taking a beating over its non-existent ethics regulations. On Monday, The Center for Public Integrity ranked Missouri 26th in nation
in terms of its ethical backbone.
"[M]any of the current practices [in Missouri] make a mockery of the words engraved inside the Senate chamber,” the report notes. Perhaps the senate is the right place for Rowden, after all.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com