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After the Missouri House Speaker was accused of obstruction, talks to turn to fixing ethics rules

Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher holds a press conference on Thursday, April 25, 2024, at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City.
Tim Bommel
Missouri House Communications
Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher holds a press conference on Thursday, April 25, 2024, at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City.

The Missouri House Speaker is already being accused of obstructing the work of an ethics committee. Recently, lawmakers have raised concerns about whether the ethics rules in the House need to be reworked in cases where the chamber’s most powerful member is the focus of an investigation.

The saga of Dean Plocher took yet another twist this week, with the House speaker’s leadership team circumventing the chamber’s rules to try to force the ethics committee to hold a hearing.

Plocher has been under investigation by the committee for months, and recently he and his allies have started demanding it convene and dismiss the complaint against him. But because House rules only allow the chair of a committee to schedule a hearing, the meeting scheduled by GOP leadership was quickly scuttled.

“The reason why I canceled the meeting is because I didn’t notice it up,” said state Rep. Hannah Kelly, a Mountain View Republican appointed last year by Plocher to serve as ethics chair. She ultimately ended up scheduling a meeting for 11 a.m. Monday.

Plocher wouldn’t comment Thursday on what his role was in the push to force a meeting.

But the unusual maneuver, coming as the speaker is already being accused of obstructing the committee’s work, has added even more fuel to questions about whether the ethics rules in the House need to be reworked in order to deal with the possibility of the chamber’s most powerful member being the focus of an investigation.

“It is deeply difficult to hold elected officials accountable in the process that we have in this ethics committee, particularly when we’re talking about the speaker, who appoints those members and ultimately has authority over how that committee works. Whether or not subpoenas are issued, you know, and the list goes on,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat.

House Majority Leader Jon Patterson, a Lee’s Summit Republican set to take over as speaker next year when Plocher’s term expires, agreed that changes to the ethics rules in light of everything that’s been going on this year are “worth looking at.”

“There’s always room to look at things,” he said earlier this week, “and see how they can be improved as we go forward.”

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 travelalready 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.

Last week, 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 subject 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.

David Steelman speaks to reporters on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in Jefferson City. Steelman is an ex-member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators hired by House Speaker Dean Plocher as his attorney.
Jason Hancock
Missouri Independent
David Steelman speaks to reporters on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in Jefferson City. Steelman is an ex-member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators hired by House Speaker Dean Plocher as his attorney.

Plocher has insisted he can’t say anything while the investigation is ongoing.

“I can’t comment on anything on ethics,” he told reporters Thursday. “I just can’t comment.”

But his attorneys have not been nearly as hesitant to weigh in on the speaker’s behalf.

On Tuesday, one of those attorneys — former member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators David Steelman — said there was nothing at all wrong with the House ethics rules.

The problem, Steelman contends, was that Kelly and the committee didn’t follow them.

“The rules work fine if the committee chairman would have applied them,” Steelman told reporters. “It was not the procedure that didn’t work. It was the chairman who ignored the procedure. That didn’t work.”

The committee should have dismissed the complaint at the start of its inquiry in November, Steelman said, and throughout the process the committee seemed to be ignoring its mission and digging for dirt.

After rejecting the draft report last week, the ethics committee has held no other meetings. Steelman says the committee has no choice but to convene and finish its work.

“Dean Plocher,” Steelman said, “has a right to a resolution.”

As speaker, Plocher also has the power to approve — or refuse to approve — subpoenas issued by the committee. And three times, the speaker’s office informed the committee he would not be granting its request.

Steelman said Tuesday that two of the requested subpoenas were for Plocher and his chief of staff, Rod Jetton. They both agreed to testify willingly, so no subpoenas were needed.

As for other requests, after roughly a month of resistance, Plocher eventually recused himself, allowing Speaker Pro Tem Mike Henderson to sign off on some of the subpoenas.

When, exactly, Plocher decided to recuse himself remains unclear.

Asked why Plocher didn’t recuse himself from the start of the investigation, or at least when subpoena requests started showing up to his office, Steelman told reporters the speaker recused himself “when it mattered.”

Steelman did not respond to an email seeking details on when, exactly, Plocher recused himself from the committee’s subpoena process.

Plocher also has the power to take away Kelly’s position on the ethics committee. He declined to answer whether he was considering that when asked about it at a recent press conference.

As for this week’s kerfuffle over committee hearings, Marc Powers, chief of staff for the House Democrats, said Sauls was approached by the speaker’s office about convening a hearing and informed them that only Kelly had the authority to do that.

However, Powers said Sauls doesn’t object to having another hearing in order to close the investigation for good.

Regardless of how the Plocher saga turns out, any rule changes will have to wait until next year.

House rules are proposed at the beginning of a General Assembly, which convenes the January after Election Day, and voted on by the entire chamber. They govern the House for two legislative sessions.

Quade, who is running for governor and in her final term in the House, said the allegations coming out of the ethics committee against Plocher “are deeply concerning.”

“There are conversations around potential obstruction,” she said. “There are conversations around employee treatment. There’s a lot of concerning pieces in there.”

She hopes those who return next year will make the issue a priority.

“I do hope that the members who will remain after my time here will look at what is the most effective way to hold folks accountable,” she said, “when they are doing something that violates our code of ethics.”

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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