By DAVID A. LIEB
As the politically connected owners of a multi-state tobacco store chain, Jon Rand and Sharie Keil have contributed thousands of dollars to Missouri politicians and even hired their own lobbyists. But the cause they are pushing right now has nothing to do with cigarettes.
The husband and wife are on a behind-the-scenes mission to pass legislation that would remove hundreds of people convicted of sex crimes as juveniles from the state's online listing of registered sex offenders. Their cause is intensely personal, because their son is among those whose name, photo and address would come down from law enforcement websites.
Their persistent, methodical efforts have set up a political showdown that would have seemed implausible just a few years ago, when the Republican-led Legislature was heaping new restrictions on sex offenders that barred them from coaching youth sports, coming near playgrounds and swimming pools or even passing out candy on Halloween.
"Certainly, I've used whatever access or influence that I've gotten," Rand, the president of Discount Smoke Shop Inc., said in a recent interview. He added: "Anybody on the registry is a target for people who like to hurt other people."
In May, the Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill that would strike juvenile offenders from public-notification websites and eventually allow their removal from the sex-offender lists compiled by police.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill earlier this summer, warning it could endanger the public by hiding the whereabouts of violent sex offenders. But the battle is not over. Missouri lawmakers are to convene Wednesday to consider overriding the veto.
The juvenile sex offender legislation originally passed the House 153-0 and the Senate 28-4. As recently as last month, House Speaker Tim Jones said the bill seemed "ripe for an override." But as Nixon has traveled the state defending his veto, some lawmakers began having second thoughts about their support for the bill and the potential ramifications of an override.
Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard said he's not pressing for an override and is no longer sure whether he would vote "yes."
"Are we going to be letting sex offenders out that may (result in) unintended consequences?" asked Richard, a Republican from Joplin and a former House speaker.
Richard has known Rand for several years, and he's aware of the family's personal interest in the bill. In the seven-week gap between the Legislature's passage of the bill and Nixon's veto, Rand contributed $5,000 to Richard.
During that time, Rand or his tobacco businesses also gave $6,000 to House Majority Leader John Diehl, a Republican from the community of Town and Country, and $3,000 to Jones, a Republican from Eureka. Any additional contributions made after July 1 don't have to be publicly reported until Oct. 15.
Jones did not respond to a phone message about the bill.
Diehl, who noted that he's been getting contributions from Rand's tobacco companies for years, said he has never spoken to Rand or Keil about the sex offender bill and was unaware they had a son who would benefit from it. Diehl indicated he would probably vote to override the veto.
"I know there's been some concerns raised with it," Diehl said. But "I don't know why I would change my mind at this point."
Supporters of the measure contend the online registry provides poor guidance to the public, because it includes people who committed violent rapes alongside those who had consensual sex as teenagers with partners who were several years younger.
Rand has long been a major political donor. During the past four years alone, Missouri legislative candidates received more than $100,000 from Rand, Keil and their businesses. During that same time, they contributed about $50,000 to Nixon, a Democrat.
Many of those contributions came as Rand campaigned against a 2012 ballot initiative to raise tobacco taxes.
Rand's lobbyist, Neal English, estimated that fewer than one-third of the lawmakers who got donations from Rand knew he also was backing changes to the state's sex offender registry.
At least initially, Keil said, she tried to talk to lawmakers herself about the need to revise sex-offender laws, but she seldom made it past receptionists. So they hired professional lobbyists. Missouri Ethics Commission records show Keil contributed $12,500 to Missouri Citizens for Reform in November 2010. A month later, the committee paid the same amount to the lobbying firm for which English works.
Soon, Keil and Rand were seeing progress. The House passed measures in both 2011 and 2012 that would have exempted some crimes from the registry requirements, but the bills died in the Senate.
The bill that passed this year would remove 858 of the 13,581 people currently listed on the Missouri State Highway Patrol's sex-offender website, the patrol said.
Keil and Rand's son pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse in Illinois for an incident that occurred in June 1998. He was age 17 at the time, and the girl was 12. They say their son, and others like him, deserve a shot at a normal life without the spotlight of a permanent listing on sex-offender websites.
"This bill doesn't affect punishment at all," Keil said. "What it affects is the ability for young people to get a second chance and have an opportunity to go to school and get jobs."
English, a former Senate staffer, said the legislation may be about a dozen House votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override. The prospects in the Senate are also in doubt. But the lobbying campaign continues, and the vote projections change daily.
"It's kind of a politically sensitive issue," English acknowledged. "We had to get the Legislature comfortable with the fact that the website's broken, and the unintended consequences are outweighing the public benefit."
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