ST. LOUIS – A five-year legal battle over who is considered a lobbyist in Missouri has ended in victory for a campaigner who claimed he was an individual spreading his own ideas on limited government, not a paid advocate for others.
Ron Calzone, who heads the Dixon-based Missouri First campaign group, does not have to register as a lobbyist before speaking to lawmakers in Jefferson City and elsewhere in the state, a full federal appeals court ruled Nov. 1.
The 11-judge en banc U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an earlier decision by a three-member panel in a dispute that began with a complaint against Calzone filed by the Society of Governmental Consultants.
In its November 2014 complaint, the society argued that Missouri First, founded in 2000, includes in its methods of operation "legislative lobbying...and citizen involvement may be used to...influence public policy." It claimed Calzone had his own work space in the Missouri State Capitol, often spoke to lawmakers and regularly delivered testimony to committees.
But Calzone, in an unsuccessful attempt to fend off the complaint and later before various courts, argued that he was a private citizen seeking only to pass on ideas to legislators and was never paid or delivered anything of value.
The Missouri Ethics Commission fined him $1,000 but, more importantly to himself and supporters, required registration and reporting of all contacts with those in office.
A U.S. district court ruled against Calzone when it found that there was a legitimate government interest to make sure the public knows who is trying to influence public policy. This decision was upheld by the three-judge appeals panel, though with one strong dissent, before the 8th Circuit found in his favor this month by a 6-5 margin.
Dave Roland, director of litigation with Freedom Center of Missouri, which litigates and advocates for freedom of expression and economic liberty among other issues, said the commission's position was that it did not matter about value or money, only the "mere fact (Calzone) shared ideas meant he should be registered." This runs entirely counter to the First Amendment right to free speech, Roland said, echoing the argument made by Calzone and his attorneys.
"It is an incredibly broad reading of Missouri law and swept in all kinds of groups...the scores of people going down to Jefferson City for lobby days," he said.
Prior to heading to the capital, activists are given talking points to deliver to legislators, and the strict following of the commission's ruling would be that all these people are acting as lobbyists, Roland said, adding that the arguments made by the government in court backed his analysis.
"They were not trying to differentiate and that came out in oral arguments," Roland said. "The government attorney said 'yes; it would cover those people."
The Freedom Center of Missouri activist's reading of the aftermath was that the commission would act if there was a complaint, but not bother if there was none.
"Where money is involved and there is potential corruption or the appearance of corruption - that is not being challenged," Roland said. "In this case, everyone admitted there was no money involved."
The action was remanded back by the district court, which must abide by the decision of the appeals panel and find in favor of Calzone. There is a possibility the state may ask for a U.S. Supreme Court review, Roland said.
"This is a case of first impression, but there are ones in other jurisdictions though none that have gone this far," he said.
In some localities, the rules are even harsher than Missouri, Roland said.