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Democratic Attorney General Debate in Kansas City, part 1

Democratic Attorney General Debate in Kansas City, part 2

The candidates: (from left to right) Margaret Donnelly, Jeff Harris, Chris Koster

A transcript of the panel questions and candidate answers follows (up to approximately the 45 minute mark in the 90 minute debate). Part four of our coverage will include the transcript from the ending point here through to the end of the debate.

The transcript:  

Moderator: Joe the first question will be yours to Representative Donnelly.

Joe Arce: I’d like to ask what is your views in regards to immigration law here in the State of Missouri? With the Latino community here, and throughout the State of Missouri, it’s been a tough year, a lot of bills have been introduced in Jefferson City, there have been many Hispanics that have traveled there, to give input. Will you also be engaging the Latino community throughout the State of Missouri to help you make some decisions, tough decisions, when it comes to immigration law, and enforcing immigration law?

Margaret Donnelly: Within the Attorney General’s office there has to be confidence from the Latino community and all other immigrant groups that the Attorney General will be, have a fair approach. And my first commitment is to be sure that we have diversity among the staff so that there is a level of trust so that when we reach out to the Latino community for advice that there is that level of trust that there are people there who understand the unique needs of the Latinos and other immigrant groups. I think that it’s unfortunate in the discussion about immigration that we’ve forgotten the value that immigration has added to this country and that the wonderful contributions that can be made as people join us from other countries. But until the Federal government does its job we at the state are going to have to confront some of the issues. And the issue which the, which I believe is appropriate for the state to address, is going after employers who exploit workers and undermine our system of wages and benefits. The bill that finally passed has some provision to go after employers who are trying to get around the labor laws by employing individuals…as independent contractors. It, but the penalties are very weak and I wish that we had put more teeth into those who want to take advantage of the workers and undermine our system of wages and benefits. And I will aggressively go after those employers who are involved in that sort of exploitation and are violating our labor laws.

Moderator: Mr. Kraske the next question is for Mr. Kostor, Senator Koster.

Steve Kraske:  Senator I wanted to ask you about Jay Nixon’s performance as Attorney General. He’s been around now for four terms. How would you alter the focus and direction of the office that he has operated and what’ll be new under a Koster administration compared to the last sixteen years of Jay Nixon’s administration?

Chris Koster: Well first let’s start with what he’s done in excellent fashion. He has been stalwart with regard to consumer rights. And has consumer protection, and has been heralded really around the country with regard to that. His work on the no call list has lifted up a new device that has made dinner time possible again in the country. And he has prosecuted environmental issues, I think, at a level that all Missourians can be proud of. Where am I gonna go differently and with different emphasis? I would say prevailing wage violations is going to be number one. When I was Prosecuting Attorney in Cass County we were able to essentially eliminate prevailing wage violations by stepping up prosecutions to such a level that no contractor entered the county without realizing that they were truly at risk if they tried to circumvent the law. Second, I think Medicaid provider fraud. In two thousand and six I was the chairman of the Senate select committee to investigate Medicaid provider fraud. I wrote the bill, we passed it in two thousand and seven. We have about twenty people prosecuting Medicaid provider fraud in the Attorney General’s office today in the State of Missouri. But those states that have really turned it on in that area, like the State of Florida and the State of Texas, have been able to double and triple the amount of money that they pull out through prosecution of Medicaid provider fraud and return to the Medicaid system.

Moderator: Mr. Mahoney the next question is for Representative Harris.

Mike Mahoney: Yes, Representative there is, there is a funding crises and a case load backup problem in the state’s Public Defender’s office. What do you plan to do about it?

Jeff Harris: That’s a very good question Mike. In this role as Attorney General this is the place where you can advocate for strengthening our public defender system. And let me tell you this, having served in Jefferson City, for the last six years, that’s not necessarily a popular idea to strengthen our state’s public defender system. But I think we should do it and I think in this office, it is the Attorney General who is best positioned to advocate for it. Now, why do I think that’s a good idea? Because I don’t think any innocent person in this state should ever be convicted of any crime at any level. And the way, one way that we can do that is to strengthen our public defender system by increasing resources to that system by paying public defenders a better wage, and Mike, sort of concomitantly with that I would also like to see and would advocate for the use of DNA as not just an exculpatory, excuse me, not just as an inculpatory tool to convict people. But broaden and expand the use of DNA to make sure that the innocent are not convicted.

Moderator: Mr. Wesson the next question is for Representative Donnelly.

Eric Wesson: Representative Donnelly one of the major issues that takes place within the State of Missouri is racial profiling. Several years ago there was some measures put on the books, but it’s not, it doesn’t seem to be enforced in a vigorous manner. What will you do as the state’s Attorney General to put some severe sanctions on cities and counties that violate the racial profiling laws?

Margaret Donnelly: We can’t ignore the fact that the statistics from last year indicate that in certain areas we are making almost no improvement in the disparities between stops of individuals from various races. And…the racial profiling casts a pall over our entire system when people are fearful that because of the color of their skin they might be more likely to be stopped. The training which is going on, I think has to be looked at. Clearly there we’re missing the mark in terms of having law enforcement train in a way that we can start making progress on the, in those areas where the disparity is quite evident. Racial profiling cannot be tolerated in this state and the jurisdictions need to know that they have a responsibility to do things differently so that no one has a fear of being stopped simply because of the color of their skin. And we have to start holding those jurisdictions accountable and say to them, “Under no circumstances is racial profiling going to be tolerated.”

Moderator: Mr Arce the next question is for Senator Koster.

Joe Arce: In regards to home foreclosures will you be looking into any type of fraud in regards to banking or mortgage companies because I think we’re at the tip of the iceberg here in the State of Missouri, we haven’t seen a lot, but I believe come this summer, with people making some decisions of moving, we’re gonna probably see more foreclosures in the State of Missouri.

Chris Koster: The answer to that is, “Yes.” Attorney General Tom Mi
ller in Iowa just finished a large scale DAGID [sp] case, Democratic Attorney Generals around the country joined in against Countrywide Mortgage. And Countrywide Mortgage was settled for about three hundred and fourteen million dollars. Those types of cases are out there, I think that the, there are really two stratifications of cases in this regard. One is the big nationwide mortgage players, and that process is really in play already and I think that a good deal of that litigation has been begun by Attorneys General all across the country. What you’re referring to I think is going to be a more regionalized inquiry into smaller, not neighborhood players, but municipal, citywide players that don’t have the national scope. The cases won’t be as large, but they’re just as important to bring forward. And it would certainly be one of many issues under scrutiny when next year begins.

Moderator: Mr. Kraske the next question is for Representative Harris.

Steve Kraske: Representative I wanted to ask you about the death penalty and I’m wondering if it’s time to end the death penalty given the increased scrutiny on that law in states around the country and the finding of innocent people on death row, even in some cases, under DNA reviews being done right now. I’m wondering if the other two panelists can answer that question as we go along here. You’re up first, Representative.

Jeff Harris: Thanks Steve. Well, just to actually follow up on my response to Mike Mahoney’s question a minute ago, it is my firm belief that the innocent in this state and in this country should never be executed. What I intend to do as Attorney General to prevent that is, is as I mentioned a minute ago, to expand the use of DNA, to prevent the innocent, not only from being convicted, but from being executed. Expand funding and increase funding to our public defender and capital offender system, and having, frankly I’m open to any other suggestions from folks who are opponents of the death penalty, or people who believe in a just and fair criminal justice system. Having said all that, the role of the Attorney General in enforcing the death penalty is largely ministerial. There is not a great deal of discretion. My personal position is that I do support the death penalty. I know that there are people in this audience, I know there are Democratic voters across this state, who disagree with me. But this has been my position ever since I’ve been in public office. I respect those who disagree with me and I’m not gonna change my position. While I will listen to others and improve the system, I, I won’t change my position simply for politically expedient reasons.

Steve Kraske: David, can I get the other two to respond to that, too?

Moderator: All right, but let, we’ll do it this time, but in the future…[laughter]

Margaret Donnelly: I support the death penalty. But I also believe that we cannot ask jurors to make such a weighty decision if there is a lack of confidence in the system. And so, because it is the Attorney General’s responsibility to handle the appeal and because we want justice served, I also believe that we have to put the right resources into the offices that prosecute, the offices that defend, and in having the best up to date scientific evidence so that we have the right evidence, and the right person. And I would use the office to vigorously advocate for making certain that we put in the right resources. Right now I don’t believe that we are putting in sufficient resources to the system so that there’s abso…, there’s absolutely a fair and, and accurate trial in all cases.

Moderator: Senator.

Chris Koster: I support the death penalty and I’m also glad I’ve never had to use it. In twenty cases that theoretically it could have touched upon I have withdrawn it the night before trial one time, and within a week of trial, two other times, and both of those were situations where we got to a point where the defendant  was willing to plead with life, to life without. The death penalty is not a ministerial act within the Attorney General’s office, there are twenty five cases a year that are referred by the outlying prosecutors, that those are the prosecutor’s outside the state, uh, city of St. Louis, Kansas City, St. Louis County. The out state prosecutors refer about twenty five cases in a year. The Attorney General is involved in the decision as to whether or not to go forward it’s, in consultation with the pro…local prosecutors. And I think that what we need to do is look for ways to take politics out of the decision making process. Brief hypothetical. First year Caucasian  prosecutor in the boot heel has an African American defendant for, up on first degree murder charges. It’s his first six or eight months on the job. It’s an all white community. The pressure on that young prosecutor to file death penalty charges is extraordinary, and it has to do, and, and politics cannot be denied, I mean politics is in that decision making process. What we need to do with the Attorney General’s office is something that we actually started and tried to do when I was on the board of the prosecutor’s, five years ago now, and that was create a review panel that has, six, you know, five to seven experts who understand how these cases are brought and reviews the facts of the case and does not, and makes decision independent from the, the politics that are occurring at home. It’s not a perfect solution, it is a step forward. It does make it, it is a better situation than we have today and I would hope to try and move in that direction with the cooperation of law enforcement.

Moderator: Thank you. Mr. Mahoney the next question is for Representative Donnelly.

Mike Mahoney: Yeah, Representative Donnelly I’d like to go back to one of the things we were talking about with immigration a few moments ago. You said that you didn’t want employee, employees to exploit the workers. I don’t think anybody does. But how specifically do you go about that and, for instance, the Federal government is recommending that employers use the E verify program to, to check that. There are some people, more than some, a lot of people have questions about whether or not E verify system is accurate and that it, it cannot be relied on. Do you support using E verify and how would you at the AG’s office specifically address that verification problem beyond just simply saying employers shouldn’t exploit the workers.

Margaret Donnelly: I think that the E verify system is the best that we have at this point and we should use it. And the Attorney General, up until now, has been able to go after employers, there’s a couple cases, one at the Lake of the Ozarks, one in St. Charles, where the employer was clearly violating the labor laws, that’s how the, the Attorney General was able to go in to prosecute because of the failure to wage withholding and the failure to pay worker’s compensation. With the new law that we just passed there is now actual delegated authority to the Attorney General to go after employers who are using this independent contractor system to get around the, and to try to avoid our system of wages and benefits by using this loophole that has existed in the past, of independent contractors. And so now the Attorney General will have a very straightforward way to go after these employers and that will be helpful.

Moderator: Mr. Wesson the next question is for Senator Koster.

Eric Wesson: Senator Koster I want to go back with you with the racial profiling as well. What can be done, because I think within the parameters and boundaries there’s some fines and the state withholds money from counties for 90 days if they’re not making progress on the racial profiling? What will you do aggressively to let these counties know, and cities know, that racial profiling will not be tolerated.

Chris Koster: Unfortunately, as a ten year law enforcement officer in a collar county to a municipality the size of Kansas City I know, I’ve seen this occur on the ground and I kn
ow that steps have to be taken. And the Attorney general has done a very good job, Attorney General Nixon, has done a very good job in beginning the process of developing data and publicizing that data every year. But it’s not good enough to just collect data and then not do anything with it, which is largely what is occurring today. The data shows that the racially based traffic stops in Raytown are almost identical to the racial traffic stops that occur in the city of Kansas City, despite the fact that the black population is quite a bit different. And there’s actually a corner where there’s a convenience store in Raytown where I know that a neighborhood of African American population, which typically has to go through that corner in order to get work, typically every day takes the long way around because there used to be a series of cops that stayed on that corner. We need to do something with the data because it’s real and it affects the way people live their lives. The first thing we do, need to do, is upgrade the in-house training and or training from the outside for departments that find themselves on the outlying ends of the bell curve. And if a, a series of training remedies do not occur than we need to pressure police and sheriff’s departments to step up to the plate and do the right thing and that we will impose financial withholdings from state government on those that refuse to cooperate.

Moderator: Mr. Arce the next question is for Representative Harris.

Joe Arce: How comfortable are you with the governor, Matt Blunt, empowering the Missouri Highway Patrol department to enforce Federal immigration laws? Talked earlier about profiling, that was one of the major concerns of Latino people in regards to the Missouri Highway Patrol stopping these vehicles, also concerns about maybe something on the vehicle would attract them, it could be a saint, it could be some sort of Latino blanket or something. But the real concern that there’s going to be racial profiling, how comfortable are you with that right now?

Jeff Harris: Well, you know, the first part of your question Joe, I’m not comfortable with Matt Blunt. And I’m glad he’s not going to be our next governor. [laughter, applause] Probably the easiest question to answer [garbled]. [laughter] You raise a very good point, Joe. My, my opinion is this. The, I believe that this is primarily, though not exclusively, a Federal issue. Having said that, if there is a role for the Missouri Highway Patrol to play in our immigration enforcement, talking to these, these men and women who are state troopers, you know frankly, they are over burdened as it is. And if we as a state are going to place that additional burden on them we need to make sure, first, they are adequately funded, second, they are adequately trained, and then third, we have to make sure that, I’m not suggesting that the patrol would ever engage in racial profiling, but we have to make sure that the, that the data that is collected, vis a vis the immigrant population in the state, the state highway patrol doesn’t indicate that there’s a problem, that there needs to be additional training. I think the most important thing here, though, is to not over burden an already over burdened patrol.

Moderator: Mr. Kraske the next question is for Representative Donnelly.

Steve Kraske: All three of you tonight are striking me as, as smart people, well qualified people, and certainly good looking people. [laughter] And I’m, I’m just wondering, I’m trying to put myself in the position of the voter out there in Kansas City, trying to sort between the three of you. Margaret, give ’em a hand, what’s the difference? Why should someone vote for you as opposed to your other two colleagues here, because I think they’re going to have a hard time sorting this one out.

Margaret Donnelly: You’re correct. We all are lawyers. We all are legislators. But I think that the kind of law practice that I’ve had, my local government service, the only one who has such, and the work that I’ve done in the legislature give me an advantage in leading the office that protects Missouri’s families. My law practice has been solely devoted to fighting in court rooms, with families in very difficult situations. So when I talk about protecting families it isn’t just a catch phrase, it’s what I did day to day. On the budget committee in the legislature I’ve had to look at that budget, in and out, for almost six years. And I know the departments that the, the AG’s office will represent better than anyone else in this race. I think that that gives you a clear advantage in understanding how policy and law intersect and in knowing where to go for the resources for the kinds of things that I want to see us advocate for. We’ve talked tonight already about public defender system, there are things that could be done in the domestic violence area, there are things that need to be done further, sexual predators, and in crime prevention. And all of those have some place in the Missouri budget, and I know where to go for them. And then in my experience, serving on the boards of two complex local agencies, a large school district and a public transit system, I had the responsibility of overseeing budgets and staff that are larger than the Attorney General’s are. And so I think if you combine the kind of law that I have practiced and the unique kinds of government experience, it gives me the position to go forward and really make happen the values that we hold dear. Because it isn’t just enough, again to use the catch phrases, you have to know how to set the direction and the policy, and manage the resources.

Moderator: Mr. Mahoney the next question is for Senator Koster.

Mike Mahoney: Senator Koster let’s talk about your party switch for a second. You said it was because you became uncomfortable with the Missouri Republican Party policy approaches. What do you say to the Missouri Democratic primary voters who may be suspicious of your party switch and whether or not your values are deeply held, especially when there are other candidates in this race who feel that they have much deeper credentials than you?

Chris Koster: This business is about more than the letter after a person’s name. It’s about a body of issues that we work toward as public servants and as legislators. The body of issues that I came into the Missouri Senate espousing where stem cell research, a dogged loyalty to wages, hours, and conditions of working families, and the working family agenda, a loyalty to the civil justice system, and the openness of the courts, passion around the issue of funding higher education. These are, as I worked for three years on the Republican side of that aisle, what I increasingly saw as I looked out was a party that was crushing the very things that I had gone there to work on. The party flip was an effort to find common ground and, to stand with those actually who I increasingly found that I agreed with on these issues. When I would look across the floor of the Senate I found that my best friends and my strongest allies were all members of the Democratic Party. And the issues that I cared about were all issue that were being crushed by the majority party and espoused by the Democratic Party. And ultimately I felt that if I was to be true to myself, for whatever limited time I had left in public service, that I wanted to do it as a Democrat. This has not been an easy transition for me at all. I was in a position of, I was the fourth ranking member of the majority. I had influence, power, the ability to pass legislation. I had a weekly meeting with the governor of the State of Missouri. And I gave up all of that because I wanted to join with my friends on the other side of the aisle and help them to fight their way back. I’m proud of the decision that I made. I wish I had made it sooner. But it is, it is the situation that I’m left with and I hope I have an opportunity to continue to serve this state.

Moderator: Mr. Wesson the next question is for Representative Harris.

Eric Wesson
Do you believe that innocent people have been executed in the State of Missouri?

Jeff Harris: Eric I hope not. I hope not. And as someone who will be charged with enforcing our state’s death penalty I hope that it never happens on my watch. The fact of the matter is, we live in an imperfect world. I believe that our system of justice, both our civil justice system, that is before they enacted their tort reform, but our civil justice system is the best we have in the world. Our criminal justice system is the best in the world. It’s still not a perfect system. The best we can do, and what we have to hope for and pray for, is that no innocent person is ever executed in this country ever. And I will do my level best as our state’s Attorney General to make sure that that doesn’t happen and still uphold the duties, my constitutional duties and moral obligation of the office.

Moderator: Mr. Arce the next question is for Representative Donnelly.

Joe Arce: Margaret how do you feel, the fact that Chris Koster switched parties and now you find him as a, an opponent in, within your own party as, as Attorney General?

Margaret Donnelly: I think the voters will have an opportunity to view all of us on our records. And that’s what I’d suggest that they do. Because you can’t undo the fact that you voted to cut hundreds of thousands of people off health care or reduce their benefits. Those people are still suffering. And that’s part of Mr. Koster’s record. You can’t undo that you voted for a bill that would disenfranchise the elderly, the disabled, and many others because of an ideology of photo ID. And you can’t hide from a record that does not give full support to public education in the state. I stand on a record of battling the absolutely immoral health care cuts of Matt Blunt, of serving on the elections committee, taking an active role in fighting photo ID and then participating in the lawsuit. And I will stand on a record of never wavering in my support of public education, from kindergarten through higher education. And so people can look at what are our values. Who’s voted. What way. And who will hold those values dear when it’s time to be the Attorney General.

Moderator: Mr. Kraske the next question is for Representative, Senator Koster.

Steve Kraske: Senator I wanted to ask you about the e-mail controversy now swirling around Governor Blunt. If you become Attorney general will you continue this means that the investigation could wind up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Chris Koster: I don’t think that the, the litigation would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, actually. But the answer is, yes. The governor’s office has put itself in an intractable situation that can’t be ignored at this point. The, the lawsuit that was filed by Colonel Fisher, Mel Fisher, to try and stop the taps from being destroyed, and I guess we will see a hearing at some point, and Chet Pleban [sp], the lawyer that filed the case, made some interesting claims in his statement of facts that he’s going to produce these witnesses soon that apparently heard from emissaries of the governor, allegedly heard from emissaries of the governor that top officials on the second floor wanted these tapes destroyed. These allegations are serious enough that they need to be carried forward. It gets to the issue of the sunshine law. The sunshine laws in chapter 610, Representative Harris has done good work on this issue. The sunshine law needs to be improved. It has been difficult this year, with the majority trying to protect the governor, to improve it. The real problem in my estimation comes in chapter 109, which is the records retention law. And the reality is while the governor is under orders to maintain records un…by statute, for certain lengths of time, there is no penalty in the state for breeching that law. In other words, if you violate chapter 109 nothing happens. There’s, the language is silent on that. Two things need to be done. One is, we need to come up with civil and criminal penalties for destruction of public records. Probably a fine on the civil side of five thousand dollars, or something along those lines, per count. Five to ten thousand dollars per count, and then a criminal violation that begins at an A misdemeanor and moves up through the felony line for intentional destruction of records. And then, the second, more touchy subject is what do, do we put some kind of stop gap in government to go in and save documents that we think are in danger of being destroyed, such as the ones we’ve got to play, right here. And whether that power be placed with a solicit…solicitor general, or the Attorney General, or with several people, perhaps the Auditor’s office, is a legislative decision. But those are the two elements. How do we save records that are in danger and what are the penalties for destroying them.

Moderator: Mr. Mahoney the next question is for Representative Harris.

Mike Mahoney: Representative, sort of following up on that, to what, if any, degree have you complied with the governor’s request for yours. And, taking the answer, “I don’t know” off the table, what do you think is going on here with the governor’s records? [laughter] You think…[laughter] And “I don’t know” doesn’t count.

Jeff Harris: You know, he and I don’t talk on a regular basis. [laughter]

Mike Mahoney: Ah, no, [laughter] [garbled] worried about that. What, what do you think is behind that? Number, number one, have you complied, intend to comply? If so, when? And is there, do you fear politics in those e-mails, fear personal items? What do you believe or fear might be there that prompted this stand off?

Jeff Harris: Well Mike, I’m glad you asked the follow up question and clearly this has been a story, some of the folks here, here this evening, I see Kit and Jason, I think covered this and put a story in the paper a week ago. For those of you who aren’t aware of it, just to give you a little background to Mike’s question…

Mike Mahoney: Answer please.

Jeff Harris: I will do it.

Mike Mahoney: Don’t stall me out. [laughter]

Jeff Harris: Oh, I’m not gonna stall on this one. I believe in the First Amendment. The answer is I spoke up in support on the House floor, for two minutes, of the two state employees who Mel Fisher and Chad Pleban [sp] put in their pleadings, allegedly refused to destroy these back up tapes. And I spoke in support of those folks because I see state employees getting a bad rap all the time in Jefferson City. And I think they get, morale is low, and I don’t like it. And so I spoke in support of them. Well, lo and behold, the next day I get in my office and I have a request from Trish Vincent, who is the governor’s chief of staff, for every single e-mail my office has ever created or received since I took office in 2003 and all back up tapes. And every document we’ve created or received since 2003. My response the very next day to Trish Vincent was, you can have, we’ve done a preliminary assessment, because I don’t want to disclose anyone’s social security number, for example, but I said you could have 75,000 pages of documents, five thousand e-mails, come and get ’em, it’ll cost you ten thousand dollars. So I did comply with that request. I also suggested that she could narrow her request to save taxpayer dollars. She did. She asked for all of my documents and e-mails on February 20th 2008. To my knowledge there’s nothing magical about that day. We looked at February 20th 2008 and I produced, Mike, approximately two hundred and fifty pages of documents and e-mails to Ms. Vincent for February 20th 2008 and I told her that because the costs wee de minimus, she didn’t, I didn’t need to charge here for copying. She tendered me a check for about twenty four bucks that was payable to my office that I don’t think I can cash and it has not yet been cashed. So I did comply. And I would, I would comply again because I believe in the sunshine law. It, and I intend to create, in our, in our Attorney Genera
l’s office a sunshine law enforcement unit that would both educate and prosecute sunshine law violations. In answer to your second question, Mike, what do I believe has happened or what is going on there? I don’t know [laughter] I honestly don’t know. [laughter] Let me say this. No, let me say this in all seriousness, you know, many times, I think we’ve all seen this, sometimes the cover up, if you will, is worse than the underlying misdeed. I don’t know if there is an underlying misdeed. Is it, is it something political? Politically embarrassing, unethical, illegal, personally embarrassing? We can speculate about these things, but what we do know, is that those records should have been retained and they should be produced because this is our government and we have a right to know. Period.