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Dean Plocher ethics probe picks up steam as legislative session enters final weeks

Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, speaks to reporters about the first half of the 2024 legislative session Thursday, March 14 (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).
Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent
Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, speaks to reporters about the first half of the 2024 legislative session Thursday, March 14 (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

A wide-ranging investigation into allegations of misconduct by the leader of the Missouri House appears to be escalating, with three more hearings scheduled this week.

The House Ethics Committee has already met eight times since the beginning of March as part of its inquiry into the actions of Speaker Dean Plocher. Last week, a six-hour hearing focused on questioning members of Plocher’s inner circle, including his chief of staff, legislative assistant and top political consultant.

The committee has posted public notice that it intends to meet Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week.

Neither the public nor the media can observe the committee’s work, as House rules require investigations be kept confidential until a final report is issued. That final report could also include recommendations for punishment, if the committee finds it warranted, such as a formal reprimand, censure, fines or even expulsion from the House.

When that report might be released, however, remains unclear. And the committee’s chair, Republican state Rep. Hannah Kelly of Mountain Grove, is not offering any details.

“The committee’s work is ongoing,” Kelly told reporters last week. “A commitment to upholding the integrity and ethics of the House of Representatives is our charge.”

Plocher, a Republican from Des Peres who is running for secretary of state, has been accused of a litany of wrongdoing, including pushing for the House to enter into a contract with a private companyoutside the normal bidding process; threatening retaliation against legislative staff who pushed back on that contract; improperly firing a potential whistleblower; and filing false expense reports for travel already paid for by his campaign.

Last week’s hearing appeared focus on Plocher’s efforts to steer the House into an $800,000 contract with a private software company called Fireside to manage constituent information. Plocher was accused by nonpartisan legislative staff of engaging in “unethical and perhaps unlawful conduct” as part of his months-long push for the contract.

Among the witnesses called to testify was John Bardgett, who worked as Fireside’s lobbyist at the same time Plocher was jockeying for the contract. After roughly an hour speaking to the committee Wednesday night, Bardgett left without talking to reporters.

The ethics panel previously questioned state Rep. Dale Wright, chairman of the committee that handles purchasing for the House, and Dana Rademan Miller, the chief clerk of the House who raised red flags about the Fireside contract.

Also testifying at last Wednesday’s hearing was David Barklage, a longtime political consultant who is working for Plocher’s secretary of state campaign.

A fixture in state politics for decades, Barklage was also a key political adviser to John Diehl, the man Plocher replaced in the Missouri House after he was forced to resign in 2015 following revelations he’d been sending sexually inappropriate messages to a 19-year-old House intern.

Barklage chatted briefly with reporters prior to testifying Wednesday, but later left the hearing without commenting.

Plocher’s chief of staff, Rod Jetton, and his legislative assistant, Diana Hennerich, also testified. Both were accompanied to the hearing by one of Plocher’s private attorneys.

Jetton, who was hired in November, was represented at the hearing by David Steelman, a ex-legislator and former member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators.

Hennerich was represented by Lowell Pearson, a longtime Jefferson City attorney who has worked for the Missouri Republican Party and House Republican Campaign Committee.

Republican waiting game

As the committee’s work continues, lawmakers are left to ponder what happens if a report is issued in the legislative session’s final weeks.

State Rep. Don Mayhew, a Republican from Crocker, said he would like to know what caused the investigation to take so long.

The committee met three times last year, then did not meet again until March 4. Between the December and March hearings, an attorney hired by the committee conducted interviews and gathered evidence. The investigator reportedly presented their findings to the committee on March 6. After that, hearings were convened to allow testimony, including from Plocher and a handful of legislative staff.

Mayhew knows the committee can’t comment on its investigation, but he would like to hear from its leadership about whether any delays are due to difficulty obtaining records or witness statements.

“At the very least,” Mayhew said, “they can update us on why (they) haven’t come to a decision.”

There are six weeks left in the session, Mayhew noted, and at this point of the year, House members rely on leadership to work with Senate leaders to manage final action on bills.

“It’s critical that we have our leadership intimately involved in the negotiating and the gamesmanship of that legislation bouncing back and forth,” he said.

The ethics committee report will disrupt that, he said.

“There are two possibilities,” Mayhew said, “neither one of which are good.”

The first is a negative report that will be debated at a critical point in session.

The other, he said, is “potentially keeping a speaker with some ethics issues. And so it’s one of those devil’s choices that admittedly, we’re frequently left with in the House of Representatives.”

Within the past week some of Plocher’s supporters have begun saying that the committee has deliberately delayed its work for political reasons, said state Rep. Scott Cupps, a Republican from Shell Knob.

He believes the rumors are intended to undermine the final report when it is issued by the committee.

“If you start those rumors and get all that going and get people talking,” Cupps said, “then it’s a pretty easy way to, whatever something might say, say that it’s not credible.”

Plocher appointed each of the members of the ethics committee and helped craft the rules governing ethics investigations put in place his first year as speaker. Last week he declined comment, through a spokesman, on the process or any complaints he may have about how it is being handled.

Cupps said he trusts the committee members and believes the time taken by the investigation shows diligence in finding the truth.

“It’s very, very obvious that they are just doing what they feel like is their responsibility,” Cupps said.

The hours are long and, unlike other lengthy hearings, members cannot step out to take a phone call or have a side conversation, he said. At the same time, Cupps said members are barred from discussing what they learn, leaving a wide field for speculation and planting rumors.

“You have people that are expecting you to do the work and to take that immense responsibility, while you also very, very clearly have people working behind the scenes to try to discredit everything you’re doing,” Cupps said.

Cupps believes any delays in the investigation actually play to Plocher’s advantage. As the session nears its conclusion, he said, there is more to grab the media’s and public’s attention.

“I assure you it would have been much more damning in February, than it would be in the next couple of weeks,” Cupps said, “even if it said the same exact thing.”

The first Republican lawmaker to call for Plocher to resign amid the allegations of misconduct was state Rep. Chris Sander, a Republican from Lone Jack. He believes he has faced retaliation from Plocher over his public comments.

Only one of the 17 bills he filed — to do away with Daylight Savings Time — has been referred to a committee. And last week, he claims Plocher took away a ceremonial job of escorting a visiting dignitary into the House chamber just minutes after he had been assigned.

Two other Republican lawmakers who called for Plocher to resign — Reps. Mazzie Christensen and Adam Schwadron — also saw their bills held up earlier in the year by Plocher, though the speaker has denied retaliating against anyone.

Sander said he was asked early in the year to retract his call for Plocher to step down but refused.

“I am confident,” Sander said, “that the members of the ethics committee are feeling a lot of stress.”

The Missouri Independent is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy. It is staffed by veteran Missouri reporters and is dedicated to its mission of relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Jefferson City are made and their impact on individuals across the Show-Me State.
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