Greitens taps charity donors for funds to campaign for Missouri governor

 Eric Greitens, Republican candidate for Missouri Governor
Eric Greitens, Republican candidate for Missouri Governor (KSPR)
Published: Oct. 10, 2016 at 5:22 PM CDT
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Missouri governor candidate Eric Greitens has capitalized on the connections he made as the founder of a charity for military veterans to help finance his Republican campaign, but denies he used a charity donor list for political purposes in potential violation of federal laws.

Financial records analyzed by The Associated Press show Greitens has received nearly $2 million from donors who previously gave significant amounts to The Mission Continues — an overlap that was especially beneficial during the crucial startup of his campaign.

A separate Excel spreadsheet obtained by The Associated Press suggests that correlation is no coincidence. The spreadsheet, labeled "All donors $1K total and up — as of 5-7-14," shows the names, email addresses and phone numbers of people who gave at least $1,000 to The Mission Continues. Its properties show it was created by a Mission Continues employee May 6, 2014, shortly before Greitens stepped down as chief executive officer, and was last saved March 24, 2015, by Michael Hafner, who had been working for Greitens' governor campaign exploratory committee.

Federal law bars 501(c)(3) charities such as The Mission Continues from intervening in political campaigns on behalf of candidates. The Internal Revenue Service has ruled charities cannot give donor lists to politicians but can rent them at fair market value if made available to all candidates.

Missouri's governor's race between Greitens and Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster is among the most competitive nationally. Republicans have targeted it as a potential pickup because Democratic incumbent Jay Nixon is barred by term limits from seeking re-election.

It's unclear exactly how Greitens' campaign staffer came into possession of the list.

Mission Continues spokeswoman Laura L'Esperance said Monday that the St. Louis-based charity that Greitens founded in 2007 did not share its donor list with Greitens or his campaign and, as a general practice, does not share, sell or rent the list to external parties.

Greitens denied using the charity's donor database for his campaign and said he fired Hafner around that time because Hafner had ties to political consultants working for John Brunner, a Republican governor candidate rival. Hafner later went to work for Brunner's campaign.

"No, we were not working off of a Mission Continues donor list," Greitens told The Associated Press.

But Greitens acknowledged soliciting contributions for his campaign from some of the same people who supported his charity.

"We were calling people who had become friends and gotten to know me over the course of seven years, who invested in The Mission Continues, and got to know me as a leader," said Greitens, a former Navy SEAL officer, author and motivational speaker who is making his political debut.

Hafner declined to comment about whether he used a Mission Continues donor list while working for Greitens or was directed to do so, citing a nondisclosure agreement he signed. Hafner said his contract was not renewed "due to a change in political strategies by Mr. Greitens and his office."

Koster, whose office enforces state laws regarding charities, said nonprofit organizations "must maintain a strict non-partisan status."

"If there has been coordination between The Mission Continues and the Greitens campaign that would be troubling," Koster said.

Other legal experts said federal laws about charities and politics are subject to considerable interpretation.

"The IRS has not provided bright lines about where these rules are — exactly what you can do and what can't do. So there's a lot of guess work which can make it hard for charities," said Eric Gorovitz, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in advising tax-exempt organizations.

The AP analyzed thousands of itemized contributions made to Greitens and Koster as of their most recent comprehensive financial reports filed Sept. 1.

Greitens received nearly 14 percent of his money from donors who previously gave at least $1,000 to The Mission Continues or who are tied to businesses and foundations that did. Of the more than $525,000 he raised during an initial two-month period in 2015, about 85 percent of it came from donors who previously gave to The Mission Continues.

The analysis shows Koster received more than $2 million — slightly more than 14 percent of his money -- over a nearly two-year-period from attorneys, law firms and prosecutors, who are people with whom he might interact in his job.

Koster was the lead example in an October 2014 New York Times article describing how state attorneys general had changed polices and negotiated more favorable legal settlements after receiving campaign contributions and lobbyist perks. After that report, Koster adopted a policy banning the acceptance of lobbyist gifts and campaign contributions from anyone with litigation involving the attorney general's office.

Greitens said Koster's recent donations from attorneys make him "beholden to special interests" seeking to influence state laws. He said that's not the case with many of The Mission Continues donors now supporting his campaign.

Several of those donors contacted by The AP said they were backing Greitens because of his charitable work.

John Hauck, a St. Louis private equity firm executive, contributed more than $100,000 to The Mission Continues in 2014 through his family's charitable foundation. He gave $100,000 to Grietens to help launch his gubernatorial campaign and contributed an additional $200,000 this year. Hauck said he got to know Greitens through The Mission Continues.

"I thought that was a really honorable thing — we're trying to do something for our veterans," Hauck said. "It's very simple."