Missouri Lobbying Rules Fought in Federal Court

ST. LOUIS (CN) – A libertarian law firm claims in court that an executive order implemented by Missouri Governor Mike Parson and the state ethics commission banning all gifts, including written materials, to certain government officials violates its constitutional rights.

The Institute for Justice filed the lawsuit in St. Louis federal court late Friday afternoon. It names Parson, a Republican, and members of the Missouri Ethics Commission as defendants.

Parson’s press secretary did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment Monday afternoon. The Missouri Ethics Commission was closed for Columbus Day.

At issue is Missouri Executive Order 17-02 which prohibits “anything of value” to be given to a member of the state’s executive branch by a lobbyist. The order was issued on Jan. 9, 2017, by former Governor Eric Greitens, but is now enforced by Parson and the ethics commission.

The Institute for Justice is a Virginia-based nonprofit, libertarian public interest law firm that litigates, researches, publishes and advocates in support of civil liberty and individuals who are denied their constitutional rights. According to the lawsuit, the group has advocated in Missouri for school choice, civil forfeiture reform, and deregulation of African-American hair braiding.

The firm, represented by Justin Gelfand of Margulis Gelfand in St. Louis, claims the former executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission already informed the institute in a letter dated Jan. 16, 2018 that two of its publications on public policy issues, “Bottleneckers: Gaming the Government for Power and Private Profit” and “License to Work 2,” appeared to “fall within the definition of gift” under the executive order, so state employees of the executive branch could not accept copies of these publications from the group’s lobbyists.

The Institute for Justice claims that by prohibiting the distribution of “Bottleneckers” and “License to Work 2” to government employees, the executive order violates its First Amendment right to free speech and Fourteenth Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

“IJ cannot freely distribute its publications to communicate with state employees of the executive branch because those employees must reject the publications, purchase the publications, or be subject to disciplinary action, up to termination of employment, for knowingly accepting IJ’s publications from lobbyists,” the complaint states.

The law firm also alleges the executive order violates its right to equal protection “because it only prohibits lobbyists from sharing publications or other written materials of value with state employees of the executive branch.”

“Bottleneckers,” a book commercially available at $27.99 a copy, discusses the problem of politically powerful groups using government power to limit competition and thereby reap monopoly profits and other benefits. The Institute for Justice claims the book is available to it at an author’s discount bringing the cost to less than $17 a book.

“License to Work 2” is a report that examines the burdens of occupational licensing laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It is available for free download through the institute’s website, though at some time in the future it may be available for download on Amazon Kindle devices for a nominal charge and the group’s per-unit cost for printing “License to Work 2” is approximately $6-10, according to the complaint.

“Although IJ’s per-unit purchase or printing costs for these publications is less than $100 each, both publications are the result of hundreds or thousands of hours of work by IJ employees,” the lawsuit states. “IJ has not calculated the total cost of staff time spent producing the book or report.”

The Institute for Justice believes the two pieces of literature are helpful for lawmakers to understand the issues of occupational licensing and would like to distribute them for free as part of its lobbying efforts.

It seeks injunctive relief from the executive order so it can distribute “Bottleneckers” and “License to Work 2” to executive-branch employees.

The group’s attorney, Gelfand, did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.

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