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Wright-Jones v. Missouri Ethics Commission

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

February 13, 2018

ROBIN WRIGHT-JONES, and WRIGHT-JONES FOR SENATE, Appellants,
v.
MISSOURI ETHICS COMMISSION, Respondent.

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF ST. LOUIS CITY The Honorable David M. Dowd, Judge

          PER CURIAM.

         Robin Wright-Jones ("Wright-Jones") and Wright-Jones for Senate (collectively, "Appellants") seek review of the Administrative Hearing Commission's ("AHC") decision affirming the Missouri Ethics Commission's ("MEC") imposition of fees arising from Appellants' failure to comply with the rules of chapter 130, RSMo 2000.[1]Appellants also challenge the circuit court's judgment finding no constitutional violations. The AHC's decision and circuit court's judgment are affirmed. This Court has exclusive appellate jurisdiction over cases involving the validity of a statute. Mo. Const. art. V, sec. 3.

         Factual and Procedural History[2]

         When Wright-Jones announced her candidacy for the Missouri State Senate, she formed a campaign committee called Wright-Jones for Senate, which later was changed to Wright-Jones for Missouri, to assist her in supporting her candidacy in the 2008 election and future elections. Wright-Jones was elected to the Missouri State Senate in the November 2008 general election.

         The MEC is a Missouri agency established to enforce chapter 130's campaign finance and disclosure laws. Pursuant to section 105.961, the MEC investigated Appellants' campaign finance records, bank statements, reports filed, and other records. The MEC concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe there were reporting violations. The MEC convened a closed hearing pursuant to section 105.961.3.

         On May 14, 2013, the MEC issued its decision, finding probable cause existed that Appellants violated multiple statutes. The MEC charged Appellants with multiple violations in eight counts. Appellants appealed this decision to the AHC pursuant to section 105.961.5.

          At the AHC hearing, the MEC relied upon thousands of pages of reporting and financial data to support its decision. There was also testimony from Appellants' prior treasurer and one of the MEC's investigative supervisors.

         The AHC found Appellants committed multiple violations of chapter 130. For each violation, Appellants were either reprimanded, assessed a fee of $1, 000, or assessed an amount equal to the expenditure determined to be a violation. The AHC determined Appellants were jointly and severally liable for all fees incurred. In total, Appellants were assessed $229, 964 in fees for violations of chapter 130. Of that total, $22, 996 was ordered to be paid within 90 days. The remainder of the fees were stayed, provided Appellants paid the 10 percent of the total fee, filed all required campaign finance disclosure reports and amendments, and committed no further campaign finance disclosure law violations under chapter 130.

         Appellants filed a petition for review in the circuit court challenging the findings and raising constitutional claims. The circuit court affirmed the AHC's decision and found section 105.961.4(6) was not unconstitutional. Appellants appeal.

         Standard of Review

         "Appellate review of an agency decision is limited to determining whether the agency's findings are supported by competent and substantial evidence on the record as a whole …." Cmty. Bancshares, Inc. v. Sec'y of State, 43 S.W.3d 821, 823 (Mo. banc 2001); see also Mo. Const. art. V, sec. 18; section 536.140. A decision is unsupported by competent and substantial evidence when an appellant demonstrates the decision is contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence. Albanna v. State Bd. of Registration for Healing Arts, 293 S.W.3d 423, 428 (Mo. banc 2009).

         This Court reviews constitutional challenges to the validity of a statute de novo. Impey v. Mo. Ethics Comm'n, 442 S.W.3d 42, 44 (Mo. banc 2014); Geier v. Mo. Ethics Comm'n, 474 S.W.3d 560, 564 (Mo. banc 2015). "Statutes are presumed constitutional and will be found unconstitutional only if they clearly contravene a constitutional provision." Hill v. Boyer, 480 S.W.3d 311, 313-14 (Mo. banc 2016). The party challenging the statute bears "the burden of proving the act clearly and undoubtedly violates the constitutional limitations." Impey, 442 S.W.3d at 44 (quoting State v. Honeycutt, 421 S.W.3d 410, 414 (Mo. banc 2013)).

         Delegation ...


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