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Missouri House chief clerk sues Speaker Dean Plocher and staffer for whistleblower retaliation

Chief Clerk of the Missouri House of Representatives Dana Rademan Miller speaks outside of the Cole County Courthouse about a lawsuit filed Friday morning against speakers of the House.
Annelise Hanshaw
Missouri Independent
Chief Clerk of the Missouri House of Representatives Dana Rademan Miller speaks outside of the Cole County Courthouse about a lawsuit filed Friday morning against speakers of the House.

House Chief Clerk Dana Miller accuses Dean Plocher of pushing for the purchase of expensive constituent communication software, because it would mean large donations for his statewide campaign for lieutenant governor.

The top staff member of the Missouri House filed a lawsuit Friday accusing Speaker Dean Plocher and his chief of staff, Rod Jetton, of harassment and intimidation during battles over ethics charges and hiring decisions.

House Chief Clerk Dana Miller’s lawsuit follows months of allegations about misconduct by Plocher and a House Ethics Committee investigation that ultimately was dismissed as the chairwoman released documents accusing Plocher of obstructed an investigation

In her lawsuit, filed in Cole County Circuit Court, Miller cited the statute protecting whistleblowers from retaliation as the basis of her complaint. Miller, who is a nonpartisan officer elected by all 163 members of the House, said during a news conference that she did not intend to seek another term when a newly elected House is seated in January.

“We have a culture of fear now in that building with the staff that work there, and it’s time for me to speak up and say something,” Miller said.

Neither Plocher nor Jetton could be reached by telephone Friday. The House Communications staff was unable to immediately provide a response to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit seeks an order finding Plocher, a Republican, violated Miller’s rights, to direct him to stop and award her monetary damages for “suffering emotional and mental distress, embarrassment, humiliation, and loss of enjoyment of life.”

The lawsuit, which names the House, Plocher and Jetton as defendants, cites disputes between Miller and Plocher that began last year when the speaker was pushing for the purchase of expensive constituent communication software. In the lawsuit, Miller accuses Plocher of pushing for the purchase because it would mean large donations for his statewide campaign for lieutenant governor and access to communications to the House for campaign use.

Until she opposed the purchase because it was too expensive and duplicated internal House-created systems, she had a good working relationship with Plocher, Miller said.

“I got along with the speaker until I told him no,” Miller said.

Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, walks into a press conference where Gabriel Gore was named the next St. Louis Circuit Attorney on Friday, May 19, 2023, at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, on Friday, May 19, 2023, at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Miller has worked in state government for 31 years, with 23 years as a member of the House staff. She became chief clerk in 2018.

“I care about that institution,” Miller said. “I care about the house. I care about the people who work in the house and they just want to be able to do their jobs.”

The lawsuit is being filed, Miller and her attorney, Kevin Baldwin said, because obstruction and intimidation by Plocher and Jetton scuttled an ethics inquiry of Plocher. An investigator’s reportdetailed how some potential witnesses allegedly refused to speak out of fear Plocher would use his power as speaker to retaliate against them, while others did not appear because Plocher decided who the committee could compel to testify. And Plocher refused to cooperate with the attorney hired to collect evidence for the committee.

Lori Hughes, director of administration for the Missouri House, sent an email March 5 to Ethics Committee Chairwoman Hannah Kelly where she 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.

In her court filing, Miller goes into deeper detail about the events surrounding the ethics inquiry than had previously been made public.

Plocher’s troubles spilled out into the public in September, when The Independent obtained emails from Miller that stated she was worried Plocher had engaged in “unethical and perhaps unlawful conduct” as part of the months-long push for the contract to a company called Fireside to manage constituent information.

Miller had been pushing back on the purchase plan but Plocher was determined to get it in place.

During a discussion with state Rep. Dale Wright, chair of the Administration and Accounts Committee, the lawsuit states, Wright told her he “had concerns that Speaker Plocher’s push to purchase Fireside was directly related to a large campaign donation” he expected.

A month after reporting on the software contract, The Independent also reported that Plocher had, on numerous occasions over the last five years, illegally sought taxpayer reimbursement from the legislature for airfare, hotels and other travel costs already paid for by his campaign.

The lawsuit states that Plocher’s demands for reimbursements was another point of contention between him and Miller.

In October, the lawsuit states, Miller met with Plocher’s then-chief of staff Kenny Ross, who told her that Plocher’s campaign consultants, David Barklage and Jon Ratliff, believed she was leaking negative information to the media and wanted her to “back off.”

Within a month, Ross had been fired. The lawsuit states Ratliff told Ross the reason was “because he didn’t stop ‘Danagate.’”

Ross has previously declined requests from The Independent to discuss his dismissal.

The allegations in the lawsuit are not based on hearsay or conjecture, said Baldwin.

“Everything that’s in there can be substantiated through emails, recordings, allegations, threats and things that have been said,” he said. “They’re not simply the statements of Dana Miller, but they are supported by documentary evidence.”

Jetton said to Miller in a meeting he was there to make peace between Miller and Plocher, the lawsuit states, and Jetton said Plocher was “seeing a lot of ghosts” and he felt that he could “get things calmed down.”

The relationship soured, Miller said at the news conference, when she tried to protect another employee from retaliation.

“When I took some steps to protect a particular employee who was in a very vulnerable position, that changed and it changed overnight,” Miller said.

The lawsuit details a Dec. 21 meeting between Jetton, Plocher, Wright, House General Counsel Bryan Scheiderer and Danyale Bryant, a staffer of the accounts committee.

At the meeting, the lawsuit states, Jetton said to Bryant “that they needed to ‘choke’ the Chief Clerk’s authority. Bryant said Jetton made a physical choking gesture with both hands as he made this statement. This event particularly concerned Plaintiff given the prior allegations against Jetton for his alleged physical assault on a woman.”

Plocher hired Jetton, himself a former House speaker from southeast Missouri, despite a past that included pleading guilty to assault after a sexual encounter where Jetton was accused of choking a woman until she passed out and admissions from Jetton that he became addicted to alcohol and the power inherent in the speaker’s office.

The lawsuit also describes instances of Plocher’s attitudes toward women, noting that she counseled him in May 2022, when Plocher was House Majority Leader, about complaints from female House members.

“Plaintiff had also overheard Plocher refer to State Representative Sara Walsh as ‘stupid’ in the House Chamber during a session of the House,” the lawsuit states. “Rep. Plocher’s reaction to Plaintiff’s sharing of those concerns was to be dismissive. He replied, ‘They are like an invasive species.’ When Plaintiff expressed her confusion over that statement, then Rep. Plocher clarified, ‘Stupid Republican women…they are an invasive species.’”

Walsh, an Ashland Republican, was a House member from 2017 until 2023. In a text message to The Independent, Walsh confirmed that Plocher had called her stupid when she tried to get the House to repeal a fuel tax enacted in 2021.

Plocher “was upset that I introduced the amendment to repeal the gas tax hike and he said I was ‘too stupid’ to draft it myself,” Walsh wrote.

In a statement, Miller said the ethics investigation of Plocher failed because of his obstruction.

“What I have discovered is that the very mechanism that is designed to find the truth has failed,” she said. “You have heard the chair and vice chair speak of obstruction that limited their ability to complete a full and thorough investigation.”

Holly VanOstran, one of the attorneys assisting on the case, said she had worked as a human resources director and she was appalled by the conditions Miller and other House employees have endured.

‘Things that would never be tolerated in a corporate environment have been allowed to run rampant here,” VanOstran said. “There are politicians who believe that they’re above the law and that they can’t be held accountable for their actions.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.


Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature for the Missouri Independent.
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