Senate committee approves Todd Graves nomination to University of Missouri curators

Rudi Keller
Missouri Independent

Former Missouri Republican Party Chairman Todd Graves is one step closer to a seat on the University of Missouri Board of Curators following a Senate committee vote that saw bipartisan support and opposition to his appointment.

One Democrat — Sen. Brian Williams of Ferguson —  joined six Republicans in the 7-4 vote in the Gubernatorial Appointments Committee to send Gov. Mike Parson’s controversial choice for the board to the full Senate. 

Two Republicans — Sens. Mike Moon of Ash Grove and Paul Wieland of Imperial — joined with Sen. John Rizzo, D-Independence, and Sen. Angela Mosley, D-Florissant, in opposition. 

The floor vote could come as early as Thursday, but the political controversies over Graves’ appointment, most apparent in the questions from Moon and Wieland, mean the debate could be lengthy, Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said in an interview following the hearing.

That could push the vote to next week, he said, but he is confident Graves will be confirmed.

“I believe, obviously, this nominee will be confirmed by the Senate, but there is more discussion to come,” Schatz said. “I do think folks have some questions.”

Graves is the lead partner in Graves Garrett LLC, a Kansas City law firm that also includes among its attorneys former acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker and Lucinda Luetkemeyer, who served as general counsel for former Gov. Eric Greitens and is married to state Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville. 

Graves is a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, and his brother is 6th District U.S. Rep. Sam Graves. His appointment is to replace Democratic former state Sen. Phil Snowden, who’s term on the board expired Jan. 1.

Parson has also nominated a new curator for the Eighth Congressional District, Keith Holloway of Cape Girardeau, to replace David Steelman of Rolla. There are two other seats with members serving expired terms but Parson has not said when appointments will be made.

Graves is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia and noted that his children have attended MU.

“I want to do it because I love this school,” Graves said. “The university for the state is a noble thing, and I look forward to the opportunity for serving.”

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, asked Graves to keep politics out of his decisions if he is confirmed.

“There is always a disconnect between, and there continues to be generally, between a very right wing legislature and an admittedly, probably fairly left-wing faculty at the University of Missouri,” Rowden said.

Graves replied that he knows the faculty is not as conservative as the state as a whole but that should not hamper his ability to work and communicate with academics.

“There are going to be differences from time to time but it doesn’t have to be personal,” he said.

During the hearing, members warned Graves not to do anything that would cause UM System President Mun Choi to seek a post elsewhere. Choi has been president since March 2017, has said he wants to keep the job for at least 10 years, and was praised by lawmakers for his communication skills and leadership.

“We love him,” said Sen. Jeannie Riddle, R-Mokane. “We think he has done a great job and I, personally, and I am not alone in this, want him to remain there.”

Graves said he is not seeking to replace Choi.

“I think that Dr. Choi is the right person at the right time in the right place,” Graves said.

Moon and Wieland, the two Republicans who voted against Graves, spent their time questioning Graves about several controversies, including:

a $200,000 transfer from the Missouri Republican Party to Fair Missouri, a political action committee seeking to overturn the 2018 ballot measure called Clean Missouri;

a lawsuit Graves’ firm filed against a Republican state senator while Graves was party chairman;

Graves’ statements about why he was removed as U.S. Attorney in 2006. Graves initially said he stepped down because he was going into private practice, but told the New York Times a year later that he had been fired for political reasons.

How his firm was hired to investigate the Missouri Gaming Commission, receiving $408,000 for work that has resulted in a report the commission refuses to release publicly.

The Gaming Commission, which met Wednesday morning, issued its first detailed statement about the report while Graves was being questioned. It described the scope of the investigation as an inquiry into how the commission has conducted licensing investigations.

“The confidential and privileged report prepared by Graves Garrett detailed their review and evaluation and provided recommendations for the Commission’s consideration,” the commission stated. “Any changes or modifications to MGC policies, procedures, or practices, in addition to any other action resulting from the Investigation, will be carefully considered by the Commission with the benefit of counsel’s legal advice.”

Graves told the committee that the gaming commission is partner Nathan Garrett’s client and he knew very little about the agreement governing the work being done.

Graves chaired the Republican Party from 2017 to 2019. The $200,000 transfer came as his term was ending, and former state Rep. Jean Evans, GOP executive director in 2019, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the transfer left the party short of money for its regular obligations.

“Was your fiduciary responsibility to the state party or donors?” Moon asked.

“I think I had responsibility to the members of the party,” Graves said.

“Do you believe the transfer of $200,000 from the Missouri GOP left the party with obligations they couldn’t pay?” Moon asked.

“Absolutely not,” Graves replied.

Wieland also asked about Graves clients, looking for university connections.

Graves told him he does not represent anyone currently on the board.

“Is your firm, or you, the legal representative of anyone who lobbies for the University of Missouri or who lobbies for a firm that lobbies for the University of Missouri?” Wieland asked.

The UM System contracts with Andy Blunt, son of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, and former House Speaker Steve Tilley is a subcontractor paid by Blunt’s firm to assist. Tilley’s lobbying activities are reportedly under investigation by the FBI.

He helped set up at least one meeting between Graves and a senator to discuss the nomination. And earlier Wednesday, The Independent reported that Steelman voiced concerns to Choi about Tilley using his university connections to get business for his other lobbying clients — and that he felt he needed to “play ball” if he wanted to keep his seat on the board. 

Graves refused to answer the question.

“I am not going to start playing battleship with my clients,” Graves said.

Attorney Todd Graves, left, and state Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, enjoy a light moment Thursday, March 31, 2021, during a hearing on Graves' nomination to the University of Missouri Board of Curators. Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent