I drove through inclement weather and icy roads to Jefferson City early today for a late morning interview with Attorney General-elect Chris Koster in his transition office. We spent about twenty minutes in conversation.
Attorney General-elect Chris Koster in his Jefferson City transition office.
[transcription by CC]
…Show Me Progress: You’re knee deep in the transition now and this is the first transition in, for Attorney General’s office in sixteen years. So, in a sense, this is sort of new ground, isn’t it?
Chris Koster: It makes – this transition is more complicated because the, Attorney General Nixon has the opportunity to fill a new government and the people he knows best are the people in the Attorney General’s office. So he is filling the government with many of, many folks from the Attorney General’s office and that makes this particular transition larger than usual.
SMP: So you’re, you’re having to fill a lot of staff positions?
Chris Koster: Right, there is, there is a certain attrition that is natural to the office and so there are probably fifteen to twenty positions that are open naturally and don’t have anything to do with the, the transition that Governor-elect Nixon is experiencing. And then, on top of that natural attrition there’s probably another fifteen, to twenty openings that are directly related to Jay’s change in jobs. So, all told, I would say that there’s a restructuring and approximately forty open jobs that we’re looking at right now…
…SMP: So that’s, that’s a lot of people to talk to.
Chris Koster:It’s a, right, it’s a lot of big decisions and then there’s the natural desire to begin to rethink the office. Bart Giamatti, the old President of the American League said that you know, it’s good to redesign an office every eight years. In fact I think the exact quote is that, “A man should quit his job every eight years.” Because, you know, he goes in, redesigns, then he grows into his own design but then he never really thinks that there’s a need to redesign the office that he built. So that’s in hence his, his quote that one should quit his job every eight years to force that redesign. You know I think that there is a, a rethinking of the Attorney General’s office that is perhaps timely. And, you know, we’re looking for a team of people to help us engage in that.
SMP: In the Attorney General debate in Kansas City, you had sort of touched upon that actually, I think when you had talked about the sort of distribution of staff in the different offices in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Jefferson City. So will some of this sort of entail some of that?
Chris Koster: I, that is a subdivision of the larger restructuring, I agree. The, it strikes me that when you go to the state of Illinois – Lisa Madigan’s main office is not in Springfield, it’s in Chicago. When you go to the state of New York, Andrew Cuomo, the Attorney General of New York, his main office is not in Albany, it’s in Manhattan. As Missouri is a – seventy percent of the population is in the broad markets of St. Louis and Kansas City. And so, allowing those two offices to find their own watermarks, water levels, I think is something that I’m open to.
SMP: One of the things that you talked about previously were, were some of the things you’d like to emphasize coming in as Attorney General. Among them, prevailing wage. And that ultimately can have a pretty big impact in a lot of things and enforcement of prevailing wage. In light of certain things like the economic kind of stimulus things that are going on in government, or that are being proposed and in some cases the, the concept of, of aggressively enforcing prevailing wage is new in some parts of Missouri.
Chris Koster: Prevailing wage has been on the books for a long time in Missouri. I’m not exactly sure when it was implemented but it’s been there for decades and decades. It is one of the least prosecuted criminal laws in the state of Missouri. And there are unscrupulous individuals in the construction industry that will cut corners in order to undercut the prevailing wage. My belief is that an aggressive Attorney General’s office, working in coordination with the prosecutors around the state, can really have a dramatic effect on this area of the law. When I was prosecuting attorney of Cass County we focused a lot of attention on that. I think we changed the culture of construction inside Cass County, whereby individual firms that came into the county knew that they had to comply with the law when they’re within Cass County borders. I think that an Attorney General is uniquely positioned to take that philosophy all across the state and I, I have never, you know, been convinced that the Attorney General couldn’t clean up this problem if he put his mind to it. In other words, I think that the Attorney General can have a dramatic effect in this area and that is what we intend to do.
SMP: Are there other areas that you feel the Attorney General’s office could help clean up?
Chris Koster: Medicaid fraud would be certainly top on that list. In 2006, 2007 I worked heavily on the Medicaid fraud issue in the Senate. We have a good Medicaid fraud unit with the Attorney General’s office, gentleman by the name of Rick Williams, comes out of the Naval JAG Corps, heads that unit for the state. And I’ve worked with Rick over the last couple of years from a legislative perspective. And look forward to reaching for new heights in that area of the office. Whereby, we’re really gonna dig down and try and increase the level of recoveries by unscrupulous contractors to the Medicaid system.
SMP: Another concern that, that people have been – you know I guess we’re talking now about consumer kinds of problems, which in turn, the Attorney General’s office does deal with, what impact, based on the kinds of crises that are going on with mortgage and mortgage fraud, what impact can the Attorney General’s office have in trying to help mitigate or clean up some of the problems?
Chris Koster: There are a number of ideas that we are looking at right now. In fact, I just left a meeting that was on point, related to this issue. Historically, the Attorney General’s office has focused on these problems through its consumer division, its consumer protection division. I’m not certain that it doesn’t merit a higher level of scrutiny than it has received to date under the consumer umbrella and we are trying to decide whether to bolster the consumer division with increased resources that would specifically go after securities fraud, mortgage fraud, insurance fraud, banking fraud, or to create a stand alone unit that is essentially strike force in those areas. And it’s, you know, I, I’m not exactly sure where we’re going to come down on that question but it’s one that’s under active consideration.
SMP: You had previously also talked about a death penalty review panel. Is that something that you’re, you’re going to try to work on?
Chris Koster: There are a number of issues that I want to talk to the prosecutors about. The prosecutors get back together I think in January and my hope is that meeting might be an opportunity for me to sit down with the electeds. I want to reach out to them for input on the death penalty issue in the state. There’s also a lot of conflict cases that are coming in from the prosecutors to the Attorney General’s office that we are handling. I’m not certain that is the path I want to continue on, I want to reach out to them as to whether they want to continue to use us as primary conflict counsel or whether they want to take some of these cases back. And I want to reach out to the police chiefs on these issues. When I was here as Assistant Attorney General in the late eighties and nineties, the Attorney General’s offi
ce was more focused on simply the death penalty cases and conflict homicide cases. Now it has become much broader. I’m not certain that this is a better model and I know, you know, coming out of the prosecutor field myself, that prosecutors are pretty ambiguous about the increasing role of the Attorney General’s office in this area. So I’m going to hold my thoughts on this until I get first hand input from my former colleagues in terms of where they want to take this, these prosecutions.
SMP: When you were in the Senate, some of the issues that, that you were really involved in, in a sense you, you have a much different role in, do you feel in some of these issues, that you won’t be able to take as active a role? Things like stem cells or the Missouri Court Plan or, sort of the challenges that keep coming up on these issues, things like that?
Chris Koster: It’s going to be issued-dependent. I think on issues where the Attorney General is well-positioned to offer an opinion, like on the Missouri Court Plan, I think you still have a voice there. Certainly I have a personal passion around the stem cell research issue and so it would be hard to keep me out of that debate. But, by the same token, I’m not going to be a senator anymore. And I’m not going to be a member of the General Assembly and the General Assembly is a completely different branch of government. I have an extraordinary degree of respect for the branch and also recognize that part of that respect is not meddling in issues that are uniquely there for the General Assembly. So I think it is pretty important for me not to wade into every debate as though I was still a Senator, I have a different job now. And so I have an office to mind, and will concentrate on doing that. But there are certainly issues that, you know, may differ from that general philosophy.
SMP: Getting to the campaign, this was a – this in, in many levels was a particularly nasty campaign. And, you know, and not just in your race, but, you know, across the state. After you, you come through these kinds of campaigns how, literally, how do you feel about the process?
Chris Koster: I feel good about the process. Actually, one of the things I feel best about is that we stayed very positive. While we took a lot of incoming attacks during the entirety of the campaign, increasingly we found that the way I wanted to pursue the effort was to just look into the camera for long thirty second intervals and tell the people of the state why I want to work for them, what I want to accomplish, and why I think I’m qualified for the job. The campaign is a, a prolonged job interview process. And one of the things that I took out of prosecution and into the election – the state-wide election process is, when I was a trial attorney as a prosecutor, I came to believe that if you just give people the right information, if you just give people full information, they’ll make a good decision. Juries usually do make good decisions despite the conventional wisdom to the contrary. And, so, I think that we try to be respectful of the process in the way we presented ourselves and with increasing focus we left everything aside that was a filter between me talking to people. And, so, the farther we got into the campaign, as you analyzed those commercials, it was more and more just me talking to people. And it’s a campaign that I’m proud of, I think my my parents, my dad’s passed, but my mom was proud of it and I, I think that it’s just a model that I believe in. Just, give people information and let them make up their own minds. We ran a positive campaign.
SMP: Alright, very good. Well, thank you very much….
Chris Koster in Independence, MO (posted on March 30, 2008)
Democratic Attorney General Debate in Kansas City, part 4 (posted on May 26, 2008 – links to parts 1,2, and 3 are at the top of this post)