A Capitol Conversation: The House Investigator
In every election cycle, there are lawmakers who watch from the sidelines. They wait for their own terms of office to come to an end and feel relieved at having not spent the summer raising money, pressing the flesh, eating bad campaign food, and stressing over whether they have any real future in politics.
Term limits dictate the end for some. But a conscious decision not to seek office again can also be involved. In any case, these so-called lame ducks generally return to the private lives from which they came with an inclination to assess the impact they have had on the process of government.
Jefferson City Republican Jay Barnes is one such elected official. His political career ended (or at least entered hiatus) at the end of 2018, when his term as the state representative from Missouri’s 60th House District expired. And while he recoils from the use of the term “legacy,” he arguably changed the course of political history in Missouri. Whether it’s for an entire chapter or just a footnote, Barnes will get tagged as the man who brought down former governor Eric Greitens.
Barnes chaired the Special House Investigative Committee on Oversight, the bipartisan panel that took testimony from the people involved in Greitens’ sex scandal and alleged abuse and intimidation that came to light in January, when St. Louis station KMOV broke the story, and lasted until the former governor resigned at the end of May. The committee also reviewed the allegations that Greitens improperly used a list of donors from the veteran’s charity that he ran before running for office to raise money for his gubernatorial campaign. And the panel was beginning to look into A New Missouri, the dark-money nonprofit organization that promoted the Greitens’ agenda without having to reveal its backers, until the governor brought everything to a halt by leaving office.
In July, weeks after Greitens’ departure, Barnes filed a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission to keep the investigative ball rolling. The Greitens team went to court last fall hoping to keep A New Missouri records out of the MEC’s hands.
“There are a thousand other things I would have rather done this spring than be buried in that,” Barnes told me during a recent exit interview. “It became consuming. I missed a lot of votes.”
From its first meeting in early March 2018, the special investigating committee all but disappeared into the shadows. The panel first held hearings at the Jefferson City Police Department to protect the identities of witnesses in the sex scandal. The meetings later moved to the capitol, but continued behind closed doors, at least until the subject matter shifted to the charity donor list. During this process, Barnes would say absolutely nothing about the progress of the investigation, allowing the release of a pair of formal reports to do the talking.
In May, when the committee agenda shifted to the dark money questions, Greitens threw in the towel and the investigation ground to a halt. At that point, the public might have assumed a goal had been reached.
“There was no goal other than to fully, fairly, and swiftly investigate what had happened,” Barnes cautioned during the interview. “[Greitens’ resignation] ended the committee’s jurisdiction to investigate further.”
Greitens quit just hours after a Cole County judge said he would have to turn over subpoenaed information about his political campaign and A New Missouri. The natural conclusion was that the light was about to be turned on to the dark money, and that was the last straw for the people involved with it.
Barnes says he is not convinced that was the reason. But he is convinced he was onto something outside the law.
“I believe the scheme they set up at A New Missouri is illegal under Missouri law,” he told me. “That’s why I filed a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission. I thought it would set a bad precedent for a legislative committee to continue an investigation of a former executive branch official after they had resigned from office.”
Perhaps, but the timing of events leaves the impression that the committee’s work prompted Greitens’ exit. And Barnes was the face of that committee.
“Have you made peace with the idea that it’s probably going to stick to your page forever?” I asked the lawmaker.
“I don’t think legislators have legacies,” Barnes responded, trying not to look annoyed. “I think that the inside baseball people in Missouri politics may remember that, but your average person on the street has much more important things to think about. People forget very soon. They’ve got families to raise and jobs to go to … and those things are much more important in life than any has-been state legislator.”
Barnes will return to the private practice of law and a family with young children. He insists he is completely comfortable with the idea.
We spoke just days before Governor Mike Parson appointed State Treasurer Eric Schmitt to replace Senator-elect Josh Hawley as attorney general. I asked Barnes if he had been interested in that job. He said he would have taken the phone call, but never had any reason to expect it.