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Missouri House ethics panel drops probe of Dean Plocher after blocking push to release evidence

House Speaker Dean Plocher at a news conference Monday claiming victory over an “attempted coup” in the form of a House Ethics Committee investigation. At his side, right, are his wife, Rebecca Plocher, and his daughter.
Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent
Missouri Independent
House Speaker Dean Plocher at a news conference Monday claiming victory over an “attempted coup” in the form of a House Ethics Committee investigation. At his side, right, are his wife, Rebecca Plocher, and his daughter.

An investigation into accusations of misconduct by Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher was dismissed Monday at the end of a tense hearing where members of the ethics committee blocked the chair from reading an email about how Plocher’s office had allegedly intimidated possible witnesses.

The email, obtained by The Independent through an open records request, was from Lori Hughes, director of administration for the Missouri House. In it, Hughes detailed events over several months that she said were designed to intimidate her and other nonpartisan legislative employees.

“In my over 21 years of state government service, I have never witnessed or even been involved in such a hostile work environment that is so horrible that I am living in fear every day of losing my job,” Hughes wrote in the March 5 email to the committee chair.

Against the recommendation of state Rep. Hannah Kelly, a Mountain Grove Republican appointed chair of the ethics committee last year by Plocher, the committee dismissed the complaint against Plocher on a 7-2 vote.

That vote came after the committee stripped the dismissal motion of language that blamed the result on “the inability of the committee to finish the investigation as a direct result of obstruction of the process and the intimidation of witnesses by” Plocher.

Plocher, a candidate for the Republican nomination for Secretary of State, painted himself as the victim of a conspiracy in a news conference shortly after the hearing, arguing that the committee’s vote was an exoneration.

“We now know that it’s the bureaucrats in the House that attempted a coup by trying to target the speaker’s office, hoping to displace and overthrow duly elected officials and giving great influence to lobbyists and special interests,” Plocher said.

 State Rep. Hannah Kelly, R-Mountain Grove, seen Monday at the conclusion of a House Ethics Committee investigation of Speaker Dean Plocher (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent),Kelly declined to comment after the hearing, but as it concluded, she was choked up and had difficulty getting out words defending the investigation she led.

“There are some days in this chamber where words do not suffice,” she said.

She later released a statement calling it “concerning” that “a member of our leadership has knowingly obstructed a fair and transparent process to serve their own political interests and shield themselves from the consequences of their actions.”

“This is simply a betrayal of trust,” she said, “by the speaker, his staff and the lobbyists fighting so hard to keep him in power for their political gain, and I am not a member of the good ol’ boys club.”

Since late last year, the ethics committee has been digging into Plocher’s unsuccessful push for the House to sign an $800,000 contract with a private software company outside the normal bidding process; alleged threats of retaliation against nonpartisan legislative staff who raised red flags about that contract; purported firing a potential whistleblower; and years of false expense reports for travel already paid for by his campaign.

Over the course of the ethics committee’s inquiry, Plocher refused to speak to the private attorney hired to gather evidence and on three occasions over March and April refused to sign off on subpoena requests by the committee.

Kelly and the committee’s vice chair, Democratic state Rep. Robert Sauls of Independence, also accused Plocher of undermining the inquiry by pressuring potential witnesses.

Two weeks ago, the committee voted 6-2 to reject a report recommending a formal letter of disapproval for Plocher, that he hire an accounting professional to manage his expense reports moving forward and that he refrain from retaliation against any legislator or House employee who cooperated with the committee.

The rejected report also includes numerous suggested changes to the rules governing the ethics committee process. Among the changes would be transferring subpoena power automatically to another member of House leadership — the speaker pro tem — if the speaker or anyone on his staff are subjects of an inquiry.

The report also suggests strengthening the House policy protecting legislative employees from unlawful harassment and clarifying that the committee can investigate any alleged obstruction of one of its investigations.

Kelly had originally wanted to hold Monday’s meeting in a hearing room with live-streaming capabilities. But early in the day, Plocher’s leadership instructed the House clerk’s office to move it to a different room without cameras.

As the committee met, Plocher’s wife, Rebecca, and their two children sat in the audience in the front row, along with several Republican members who later stood behind the speaker at his news conference.

During the discussion in the committee Monday, several members said they would be more comfortable debating their disagreement with Kelly in a closed session. That is what Republican state Rep. John Black said he wanted in his motion to strip the langage about obstruction from the dismissal motion.

After the vote, Black said he was dismayed because the committee stopped meeting in private.

“The ethics committee requires confidentiality, it’s that simple,” Black said. “I fully respect the chairwoman. I think she’s a wonderful person. She just sees her duty to the people differently than I do.”

Kelly said it was public comments from Plocher’s attorney accusing the committee of dragging out a process in secret that prompted her to open the process.

“The respondents lawyer notated on a public forum that the lack of transparency was a problem,” Kelly said. “So here we are.”

The investigation began in November. Plocher at his news conference, blamed the delays on the committee and the allegations against him in the media.

“The complaint was based upon hearsay, innuendo and a newspaper article,” Plocher said. “And then other interested bureaucrats that were really just dead set on trying to damage my reputation and that of the House.”

But early on, Plocher retained control of several aspects of the committee’s work, including which House members or staff would be compelled to testify via subpoena. He denied delaying the investigation by his early refusal to step aside from those decisions.

Asked about the delays, Plocher said he never obstructed the committee’s work.

“I turned that over ultimately to an individual who was able to issue those subpoenas,” Plocher said. “I found that to be a conflict. So yeah, I didn’t initially, but I turned them over so they could be issued. In no way did I disrupt that.”

As the committee hearing concluded Monday, Kelly said each member would have to reflect on their role.

“I know,” she said, “I have done my best to do what’s right.”

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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