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Falling through the cracks: the Post-Dispatch missed reporting on connection between Jim Talent and ultra right-wing Charles Norval Sharpe.

Missouri is notorious. Not only does it rank last in funding for care for foster children, but it is one of only a handful of states in the country without any regulations for schools run by religious institutions, not even minimum health and fire-safety standards. In fact, religious schools do not have to report their existence to state officials. In 1996, a murder took place at a religious school near Piedmont, Mo., and officials didn't know the 200-student school existed until the murder happened.

This lack of regulation has made the state a haven for religious extremists from all over the country. The Mountain Park Baptist Boarding School, the school where the murder took place, relocated to Missouri after battling juvenile-court officials in Mississippi.

For years, any attempt at regulating these schools has been defeated in Missouri's legislature. And, once again this May, the Missouri House of Representatives voted down a bill that would have put minimum fire-safety regulations on religious schools. The bill went out of its way to reassure voters that it would in no way regulate the schools' curriculum, ministry, certification or minimal educational requirements for instructors or other personnel. Still, the vote was 91 to 58 against, with most of the no votes coming from Republicans and most of the yes votes coming from Democrats.

But one thing was different about this vote. In the 2000 election, ultra-conservative multimillionaire Charles Norval Sharpe, founder of the Heartland Christian Academy outside Hannibal and one of the largest donors to right-wing candidates in Missouri, changed his giving pattern. Instead of John Ashcroft getting most of his money, Sharpe shifted his major contribution to Jim Talent, who was running for governor. And then, according to John Hickey of Pro-Vote, a citizens' group that monitors militias and other right-wing organizations, Sharpe began boasting in Jefferson City that he had killed the religious school-regulation bill.

Pro-Vote prepared a study of Sharpe's shift in contributions and gave the report to Terry Ganey, a political reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Ganey was familiar with Sharpe's past legal problems and his history of political contributions. Sharpe is one of the biggest contributors to political campaigns in Missouri. Hickey says that Ganey thought this new information would make a good story.

But Ganey was about to leave town, so Hickey says Ganey suggested he give the story to Matt Franck, an education reporter at the Post. Franck was also interested but he was concerned that the political implications weren't part of his beat.

"It was a turf issue," he says.

So he asked for a political editor to make the call. The decision on whether to do the story was bumped up to Assistant Metro Editor Mandy Davis.

Davis did not return SIR's phone call. But, in her defense, the Sharpe/Talent story would have come at the end of the legislative session when the newspaper was already full of stories from Jeff City. Apparently, Sharpe's switch to giving Talent money fell through the crack of political versus education reporting.

The story appeared in the Kansas City Star.

Old patterns

Charles Norval Sharpe has been in the news before. In October 2001, state officials forcibly removed 115 students from Sharpe's Heartland Christian Academy after one boy had his eardrum punctured by a staff member and other students were allegedly kept standing chest deep in cow manure for hours as punishment for breaking school rules. Child-abuse charges were brought against a half-dozen staff members.

But the school remained open. In fact, according to a report in the Post, the parents of 75 children returned their children to the school despite a juvenile officer 's warning. The parents said the school had done wonders with their children who had been out of control before they were sent to Heartland. Even the boy with the busted eardrum said he wanted to return.

Sharpe had also made news with his contributions to right-wing political candidates, many of whom were so far outside the mainstream that they lost their bids for political office. Both the Post and the Star have tracked the contributions of the insurance executive since he entered the political picture.

But what intrigued Pro-Vote's Hickey was the fact that Sharpe had not given any money to Talent during Talent's time in the U.S. House of Representatives. The last time Talent got money from Sharpe was when Talent served in the state House. And that was at a crucial time.

The state had been trying to enact safety and other standards on religious day-care centers for several years. On April 1, 1992, while Talent was still in the Missouri House, he voted against HB 1356, a bill that would have created basic standards for church-run day-care facilities. According to Hickey, that was the last time Talent received money from Sharpe until Talent ran for governor in 2000. In 1993, the daycare bill finally passed, after Talent had gone to Washington, D.C.

Even without Sharpe's contribution, Talent continued to vote against federal legislation that would have regulated federal tax dollars going to religious-based programs. He did vote for the School Prayer Amendment in 1998 which called for changing the U.S. Constitution not only to allow prayer in public schools but also government funding for religious institutions.

Actually, a lot of Missouri legislators continue to vote in ways that Sharpe agrees with even without his contributions. Sources say that although Sharpe is a major player in state Republican politics, he and his money are not the deciding factor. Most Republican legislators in Missouri hold extremely conservative views anyway. And many of them agree with Sharpe that fundamental Christianity has the answer for every question. Also Sharpe is probably right that any state safety regulations would prohibit corporal punishment. And Sharpe believes strongly in physical punishment for children. So do a lot of Missouri legislators.

"Any time you say 'religion' and 'regulation' in the same sentence--end of discussion," a political source says.
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Author:Bishop, Ed
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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