Ron Calzone has committed the most shocking political crime possible: daring to actively participate in his state’s legislative process as a private citizen and as leader of an NGO (non-governmental organization).
Wait, no, it’s much, much worse than that: Calzone has also been effective.
Now, that is serious. The restless citizens of Mizzouland might be getting [gasp!] organized.
Mr. Calzone is the president of Missouri First, an organization advocating constitutional, accountable government. More importantly, this citizens lobbying group does the hard work of communicating with people and finding ways for their voices to be heard in the capitol — their online system allowing more folks to submit testimony at legislative hearings comes immediately to mind.
Jefferson City is about an hour drive from Calzone’s rural home, near Rolla, Missouri, but one he makes often during the legislative session. I know the trip well, having been lucky enough to accompany Ron on a visit to the capitol several years ago. Together, we addressed pending legislation on (read: assaulting) the Show-Me State’s initiative and referendum process.
Speaking of effectiveness, those legislative machete swipes at the First Amendment rights of citizens to petition for ballot initiatives were defeated again and again. Years later, because of Calzone’s continued involvement, the Missouri Legislature passed a bill that — drum roll, please — significantly improved the initiative process for citizens to use.
Missouri First has been active and successful on a number of issues — fighting for Second Amendment rights, protecting property rights against eminent domain abuse, and battling against crony capitalism. There’s a pattern here: all of Citizen Calzone’s issues involve upholding fundamental rights against often unconstitutional insider plays by politicians and special interests.
So, on Election Day last year, the lawyer for the Missouri Society of Governmental Consultants (MSGC) — an association Calzone describes as “a guild, of sorts, of professional lobbyists” — filed a complaint, alleging that Mr. Calzone was acting as a lobbyist and must so register with and report to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
“Average citizens have acted in harmony to stop hundreds of millions of dollars worth of graft that would have otherwise benefited the people who hire herds of professional lobbyists,” Calzone wrote in response. “No doubt, it’s hard for those lobbyists to explain how average men and women can, with no budget and with no palm greasing, beat them so often!”
Troublingly, after receiving this particular complaint, the “ethics” commission violated its own statutory rule requiring that the identity of a complainant be revealed to the subject of the complaint within five days. Calzone wasn’t informed for 74 days.
Then, at a secret, closed September 3 hearing held by the ethics commission, which “serves the public interest by promoting and maintaining transparency,” sworn testimony exposed that Rep. Kevin Engler and Senator Ron Richard had indeed gone to MSGC to request that they submit a complaint against Calzone.
Rep. Engler was the lead author of the very worst of those anti-initiative bills that Ron Calzone and I argued against years ago — and that Ron’s continued doggedness had defeated. My group, Citizens in Charge, even ran television ads alerting citizens of Engler’s rotten record of not respecting initiative rights.
Sen. Richard was the House speaker back in 2010, when he orchestrated a maneuver to sneak through legislation that, among other bad and unconstitutional provisions, made it a felony to speak to a state rep or senator representing any district other than your own about any legislation. A Springfield New-Leader article noted that this “reform” of lobbying rules was designed specifically to tie the tongue of one Ron Calzone, who had angered the solons with his audacious acts of advocacy.
The Missouri Supreme Court ultimately ruled HB-844 unconstitutional.
More recently, Calzone mobilized citizens through the Missouri Leadership Project “to oppose the election of State Representative John Diehl to the position of Missouri Speaker of the House,” arguing that Diehl “is going to work for a law firm that has a big interest for tax credits and eminent domain, when at the same time every year there are bills that both expand and attempt to retract those things.”
In short, Diehl had a potential cronyism conflict of interest.
It was in the midst of that effort against the Speaker-to-Be, that the complaint was filed against Calzone. Diehl became speaker, but has since resigned that position and his legislative seat, after a sexting scandal with a 19-year-old intern on his staff.
Let’s review. Ron Calzone and his merry band of citizens have worked their way deeply under the skin of powerful potentates and their special interest cronies. The powerful and well connected have implored the Missouri Ethics Commission that one citizen, providing real representation to many more citizens, should be fined and forced to register as a lobbyist.
And, sadly, the ethics commission is playing along . . . even though the legal requirement for lobbyists to register doesn’t apply to Calzone in the slightest. That rule clearly speaks of lobbyists needing to register if they are “acting in the ordinary course of employment” or “engaged for pay” or “designated to act as a lobbyist” or making “total expenditures of fifty dollars or more . . . for the benefit of one or more public officials.”
Registering as a lobbyist would only cost $10 and require reports about money spent lavishing love on the lawmakers determining public policies. But Calzone is a volunteer, not a paid, professional lobbyist. Missouri First doesn’t even have a bank account. Nor has he been designated as a lobbyist. Nor does he or the grassroots organization make “expenditures” for “the benefit” of politicians.
Instead, Calzone & Co. anger many politicians. Thank goodness.
On Friday, the Missouri Ethics Commission — performatively admitting it doesn’t recognize the First Amendment — fined Calzone $1,000 and ordered that he register as a lobbyist before speaking to any legislators.
While the immediate goal of this silly tyranny is to block Calzone’s freedom of speech, he understands the bigger, broader implications: “Make no mistake, though, this attack is a threat to every citizen who would dare to encroach on the lobbyists’ and politicians’ territory.”
Calzone will appeal the decision with the help of the Freedom Center of Missouri and the Center for Competitive Politics. And he will prevail.
Indeed, Ron Calzone must prevail, he tells me, because there is “an army of citizen activists who need to be assured they don’t need permission from the government they created to weigh in on public policy debates!”
Paul Jacob, September 13, 2015
This column first appeared at Townhall.com.