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Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher draws new scrutiny over meetings with out-of-state vendor

House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, gavels in on Friday, May 12, 2023, during the last day of the legislative session in Jefferson City, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, gavels in on Friday, May 12, 2023, during the last day of the legislative session in Jefferson City, Mo.

Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, faced criticism last year for unsuccessfully pushing the House to purchase a software system from a private company over the objections of nonpartisan legislative staff. Meetings his office helped arrange with an Oklahoma company last month are drawing comparisons.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher arranged a series of meetings in the state Capitol last month between GOP legislators and an out-of-state technology vendor, inviting renewed bipartisan criticism to the embattled Republican as he remains the focus of an ongoing ethics investigation.

The unusual arrangement — including a meeting with GOP leadership that took place in the speaker’s Capitol office — is drawing comparisons to Plocher unsuccessfully pushing last year for the House to spend $800,000 outside the normal bidding process to hire a private company to manage constituent data.

That push, which allegedly included threatening the jobs of nonpartisan staff who criticized the contract, was among the litany of scandals that eventually led to a House Ethics Committee investigation of Plocher.

Both Plocher and the owner of Oklahoma-based Western Petition Systems LLC said last month’s meetings were informational and not an effort to solicit a change in state law or win a contract.

But acting as an emissary for a potential vendor and arranging Capitol meetings with key lawmakers sounds more like the actions of a lobbyist than a legislator, said state Rep. Scott Cupps, a Shell Knob Republican.

Especially, Cupps said, when Plocher is already under an ethics investigation.

“I’d have been surprised if this was any other speaker. It seems 100% par for the course for Dean,” said Cupps, who serves on the House committee that last year voted against privatizing constituent management services despite Plocher’s behind-the-scenes advocacy.

Republican lawmakers and staff from the Missouri Secretary of State’s office were invited by the speaker’s office to attend meetings with Bill Shapard, founder of Western Petition Systems LLC.

In 2021, Western Petitions signeda $300,000 contract with the Oklahoma secretary of state’s office to offer technical assistance for signature verification in the initiative petition process.

To do something similar in Missouri would require a change to state statute.

Shapard told The Independent he did not make the trip to Jefferson City in order to score a state contract. He was simply there to provide background on what his company has done in Oklahoma.

“I had no expectations at all that anything was going to come of it or we were going to end up with some work out of this trip,” he said. “That was not my intention, and that was not the intention that was told in coming up to Missouri.”

Plocher downplayed the significance of the meetings in an email to The Independent, saying his office was connected with Shapard by another Republican legislator who wanted Missouri lawmakers to hear about changes that were implemented to the initiative petition process in Oklahoma.

Shapard said that legislator was Rep. Chris Lonsdale R-Liberty, who didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Even if nothing inappropriate happened at these meetings, Democratic state Rep. Deb Lavender of Manchester questioned the wisdom of the speaker convening them.

“He’s already got an ethics investigation against him for something similar,” she said. “Why he would be continuing down the same path seems odd.”

The Missouri State Capitol is reflected in raindrops on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in Jefferson City.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri State Capitol is reflected in raindrops on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in Jefferson City.

What happened in Oklahoma

Shapard is a longtime political pollster in Oklahoma who founded Western Petition in 2020. On the company’s website, it promises to modernize “the way that petitions are created, signed and validated.”

“Our innovative and automated process searches voter records and matches signatures with registered voters, highlighting discrepancies, and providing a detailed report to the Secretary of State,” the company boasts.

The company insists on its website that the Oklahoma secretary of state remains in control over the signature verification process and it only supplies hardware, software and consulting services to the state.

Just as in Missouri, the initiative petition process requires those hoping to put an issue on the ballot to collect a certain amount of signatures and submit them to the secretary of state’s office.

In Missouri, the secretary of state then works with local election officials to verify that the signatures are legitimate.

Western Petition ran into controversy in 2022 when an initiative petition seeking to legalize recreational marijuana was unable to be placed on the November ballot because of delays in the signature verification process.

Proponents collected more than 164,000 signatures and expected the verification would take roughly four weeks. It ended up taking seven weeks, pushing past a deadline for mailing overseas and absentee ballots and scuttling any chance of making the ballot that year.

Shapard said the problems actually began when the Oklahoma Supreme Court waited until May of that year to allow the marijuana campaign to begin collecting signatures. Then the campaign turned in twice the number of signature sheets than he anticipated, Shapard said, which caused the verification process to take longer than originally planned.

In mid February, Plocher’s office organized meetings in the Missouri Capitol so Shapard could discuss his company’s services with lawmakers and the secretary of state’s office.

“I’m not a registered lobbyist. I don’t have a lobbyist in Missouri,” Shapard said. “I didn’t come to lobby for anything. I came to share our experience in Oklahoma, what Oklahoma’s problem was and how we fixed it with our solution. I think the speaker’s office and various other House and Senate members wanted to learn more about it to see if it’s a fit for Missouri’s current issues or not.”

Plocher said another legislator suggested a meeting be held to discuss changes in how Oklahoma handles the signature verification process. That legislator, who Shapard said was Lonsdale, “recommended Mr. Shapard as an authority on the subject, since he was involved in the legislative effort in Oklahoma,” Plocher said.

“The speaker, nor his staff, have any connection with Mr. Shapard,” Plocher’s statement read.

Shapard agreed that “prior to my visit to Missouri, I’d never had any dealings with Dean Plocher.”

Plocher said in his email to The Independent that he has no position on whether Missouri should follow Oklahoma’s lead, and “there is no effort, legislatively or administratively, to solicit or procure private vendors for signature verification that the speaker, or his office, are aware of.”

Speaker of the House Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, (left) and Rep. Mike Haffner, R-Pleasant Hill, (right) during a news conference on Thursday. Earlier in the day, the House passed legislation Haffner sponsored that would limit how much Missouri farmland could be owned by foreign countries.
Tim Bommel
Missouri House of Representatives
Speaker of the House Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, (left) and Rep. Mike Haffner, R-Pleasant Hill, (right) during a news conference on Thursday. Earlier in the day, the House passed legislation Haffner sponsored that would limit how much Missouri farmland could be owned by foreign countries.

Meetings in Missouri

Among those invited to attend the meetings was state Rep. Mike Haffner, a Pleasant Hill Republican sponsoring legislation making changes to signature gathering rules for Missouri’s initiative petition process.

Haffner has been working with attorneys in the secretary of state’s office since 2022 on his legislation, he said, trying to identify and fix problems that have emerged in the process.

His bill, which the House approved last month, includes numerous provisions — ranging from a ban on compensating signature gatherers based on the number of signatures collected to a requirement that gatherers reside in Missouri for at least 30 consecutive days prior to the collection of signatures.

Democrats decried Haffner’s legislation as a solution in search of a problem, arguing that it was a continuation of GOP attacks on the initiative petition process. Haffner countered that he was simply trying to ensure out-of-state interests weren’t able to manipulate the system.

“We have to protect the process,” Haffner said. “Missourians should be in control of the Missouri constitution.”

Haffner said he wasn’t interested in adding any new provisions to his bill to allow private vendors in the process, and felt any discussion of new tools or technology should wait until after the legislature adjourns for the year in May.

“We talked about some of the technologies that were available,” he said of the meeting he attended. “That may be something that we look at once the legislative session is complete. We deal with those issues in the off session. I prefer just to concentrate on the legislation while we’re in session.”

State Rep. Peggy McGaugh, a Carrollton Republican and chair of the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee, also attended one of the meetings with Shapard.

She complimented his presentation but said when Shapard mentioned the cost could be more than $300,000, she knew the idea wasn’t going anywhere because it wasn’t already included in the proposed state budget.

“A lot of the presentation and the handouts were things Missouri already did,” said McGaugh, who previously served 32 years in the Carroll County Clerk’s office.

JoDonn Chaney, a spokesman for Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, said two of Ashcroft’s deputies attended a Capitol meeting with Shapard and others at the request of Plocher’s office.

The secretary of state already has an in-house system in place to verify signatures, Chaney said, and doesn’t see a need to spend taxpayer money to replace something that they believe is working. Chaney also said there could be privacy concerns with allowing a private entity access to voter data.

Those were the twin concerns raised last year when Plocher began pushing House staff to award a contract to a company called Fireside to manage constituent information.

Records obtained by The Independent last fall through the Missouri Sunshine Law document allegations that Plocher connected the success of the Fireside contract to the 2024 campaign — in which he is running for lieutenant governor — and engaged in “unethical and perhaps unlawful conduct.”

The ordeal even garnered attention from federal law enforcement, with the FBI attending the September legislative hearing where the contract was discussed and voted down. The FBI, which investigates public corruption, also conducted several interviews about Plocher.

“This all sounds very familiar,” Cupps said of the Western Petition meetings. “If it were me, and I was under an ethics investigation, you better believe I wouldn’t be so brazen as to do this kind of stuff.”

The House Ethics Committee held two meetings last week as part of its inquiry into Plocher, including one where the speaker’s lawyer attempted to remain in a closed hearing to listen to members discuss the findings of an attorney hired to conduct the investigation.

Two more ethics hearings are scheduled this week. House rules require proceedings of the ethics committee to be confidential, with none of the discussions, testimony or evidence gathered made public until a final report is issued.

This story was originally published by The Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Jason Hancock has been writing about Missouri since 2011, most recently as lead political reporter for The Kansas City Star. He has spent nearly two decades covering politics and policy for news organizations across the Midwest, and has a track record of exposing government wrongdoing and holding elected officials accountable.
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