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In the most expensive gubernatorial race in the country, Eric Greitens and Chris Koster have taken turns flinging mud at each other.
Leading up to a Sept. 30 debate in Branson, Missouri, the candidates focused their efforts on who could advocate better on behalf of Missouri women.
On Sept. 29, the Greitens campaign put out a news release explaining why they think Koster is "wrong for women."
The release claims that Koster "fell silent" on investigating the website Backpage.com in 2011, after receiving "over $12,000 in campaign contributions" from a legal and lobbying firm representing the site, SNR Denton.
That’s a pretty heavy charge. We decided to look into the claim.
Backpage, a free classifieds website, has been criticized for promoting prostitution and helping facilitate human trafficking.
The company’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, was arrested Oct. 6 for pimping a minor.
In 2010, Koster and other attorneys general were trying to get the site to remove its adult services page. Backpage has yet to comply. According to the campaign release, Koster ceased any efforts against Backpage following donations from SNR Denton.
We reached out to both the Greitens campaign and Koster’s press secretary to compare their versions of the story.
Much like Craigslist, Backpage lets users buy and sell items and services online. Unlike Craigslist, which removed adult services in 2010, Backpage still has an adult services section.
Before getting into campaign finance, it’s important to understand the timeline of Koster’s work against Backpage, and how that timeline is described by each campaign.
Starting in 2009, Koster and a growing group of attorneys general began attacking Backpage for allowing advertisements that promoted human trafficking, particularly of minors — both campaigns agree on that.
Koster was one of the lead attorneys in a multistate working group trying to get Backpage to shut down its adult services advertising section in September 2010. Spokespersons from both the Greitens campaign and Koster’s office provided news releases to back that up.
In August 2011, Koster and 44 other attorneys general sent another letter to Backpage, asking for proof the website was actively working to remove sex trafficking advertisements. Both campaigns cited that letter as well.
And that’s where the timelines diverge.
According to Greitens
"Then suddenly, (Koster) fell silent."
That’s what the Greitens press release says, at least.
The release goes on to cite Koster’s 2011 campaign finance records. On Sept. 1, 2011, the day after the attorneys general requested information on Backpage’s efforts to end sex trafficking, Missourians for Koster received two donations.
The first was a $5,000 donation from SNR Denton, a now-dissolved legal and lobbying firm that represented Backpage at the time. The second was a $250 donation from Samuel Fifer, a lawyer with the firm, who also counseled Backpage during the investigation by the attorneys general.
Missourians for Koster also received two other donations from SNR Denton in 2012, which the Greitens campaign also referenced.
"Campaign cash is worth more to Koster than protecting Missouri’s children," the release goes on to say.
That’s where the press release timeline ends. But we reached out to the Greitens campaign, and staffers pointed out one more piece of Koster’s involvement in investigating Backpage.
In June 2013, Koster and two other attorneys general sent a letter to attorneys general nationwide. The letter asked attorneys general to sign on to a letter urging Congress to amend the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The Greitens campaign referenced this letter in its research sent to PolitiFact.
The proposed amendment, known as the SAVE Act, would close the loophole that makes it easy for websites like Backpage to promote sex trafficking, giving state and local law enforcement jurisdiction over cyber crimes.
The actual letter was sent to Congress that July, signed by Koster and 48 other attorneys general. Koster’s office referenced this letter.
So, does sending a letter to Congress count as working to end human trafficking? Not if you ask the Greitens campaign.
"That’s the problem with career politicians like Chris Koster," Greitens campaign manager Austin Chambers told the Springfield News-Leader. "They think sending a letter and a press release counts for doing something."
According to Koster
But if you ask the attorney general’s office, Koster wasn’t finished with Backpage in 2013.
On Oct. 15, 2014, Koster and the National Association of Attorneys General sent a letter to Congress asking for passage of the Amy and Vicky Act, which would make anyone involved in the sale or distribution of child pornography liable for restitution.
Five days later, Koster and other attorneys general once again asked Congress to pass the SAVE Act, rehashing the sentiment of the June 2013 letter given to us by both Koster and Greitens. The letter, given to us by Koster’s press secretary, directly mentions Backpage.
At the state level, in May, Koster’s office announced tuition-free training for prosecutors and members of law enforcement on how to effectively investigate human trafficking.
But the question still stands: Did Chris Koster abandon efforts to restrict Backpage as a broker of sexual services as the Greitens’s campaign claims?
It’s impossible to tell whether the donations caused Koster to ease up on his investigation into Backpage. However, Koster’s office provided us with evidence of continued activity against Backpage, even after the 2011 donations cited by the Greitens campaign.
It’s also perfectly legal for lobbying firms to donate to campaigns, said James Klahr, executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Klahr said the commission hasn’t analyzed how often or why lobbying firms make contributions, but a quick donor search shows SNR Denton and its employees donated consistently to Missouri campaigns since 2010. Even after merging into the multinational firm Dentons, the company continued political contributions. Dentons represents a long list of corporations.
The firm isn’t exclusive to Koster. In fact, Dentons has donated to Greitens’s charity, The Mission Continues, since at least 2013.
Koster has not had any ethics complaints related to donations from the firm, and Greitens can’t file a complaint, because the contributions were made more than two years ago, beyond the statute of limitations for ethics complaints.
But, this isn’t Koster’s first time getting tangled in legal and lobbyist firm meddling. A 2014 investigation by The New York Times found that in 2013, successful lobbying by the law firm representing 5-Hour Energy led to Koster ending an investigation into false advertising by the company. Such practice is common for attorneys general across the country, the investigation found.
However, one month after the Times article, Koster’s campaign decided to stop receiving contributions from lobbyistsconnected to anyone involved in litigation with the attorney general’s office. According to campaign spokesman David Turner, the campaign returned more than $115,000 since implementing the policy.
Koster’s campaign did not receive any contributions from Dentons after 2014.
Greitens said Koster "fell silent" as attorney general in pursuing a case against a free classified service accused of promoting prostitution after accepting "over $12,000 in campaign contributions" from people affiliated with the service.
A lobbying firm that represents the classified service, SNR Denton, and its employees contributed to Koster’s campaign.
Koster’s office didn’t end its efforts to restrict Backpage after the donations were made. Greitens’ campaign says Koster’s efforts were hollow. But that’s up for interpretation.
The statement contains an element of truth, but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
We rate the statement Mostly False.
Email thread with Parker Briden, Oct. 7
Email thread with Nanci Gonder, Oct. 4
Phone interview with James Klahr, Oct. 12
Missouri Ethics Commission campaign finance records, 2002-present
Greitens, Koster take heat over treatment of women in competing St. Louis-area rallies, Springfield News-Leader, Sept. 29
AG Koster announces training on investigating and prosecuting human trafficking, Missouri Attorney General’s Office, May 10
Dentons clients, Law360
Missouri contest for governor roiled by lawsuit against Greitens’ donor alleging sexual abuse, St. Louis Public Radio, March 17
Lobbyists, bearing gifts, pursue attorneys general, New York Times, Oct. 28, 2014
Some truth, some hyperbole in Missouri governor race claims, Associated Press, Oct. 12
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