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Records show Speaker Dean Plocher charged Missouri for travel paid for by his campaign

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.

The top lawmaker in the Missouri House filed false expense reports numerous times since 2018 and began paying back the money he received last week.

Weeks after his return from a conference in Hawaii, Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher was trying to convince legislative staff to reimburse him for the cost of his trip.

He’d filed an expense report that included $1,199.60 for a plane ticket to represent Missouri at the 2023 Uniform Law Commission conference, but he was informed he’d missed his window. The ticket was purchased in January, and it was already August — well outside the 90-day timeframe laid out in House rules to file for reimbursement.

Plocher pled his case in an Aug. 11 phone call and letter to Chief Clerk of the House Dana Miller, arguing this was official business and he’d saved taxpayer money by buying the ticket early and getting a good deal. He filed for reimbursement, he wrote, as soon as he got back to Missouri.

The House ultimately agreed to pay him the money. But as it turns out, the cost of the ticket didn’t come out of Plocher’s bank account. It came out of his campaign.

Seven months earlier, “Plocher for Missouri” reported paying $1,199.60 for airfare to Hawaii for the ULC conference.

A review of Plocher’s expense reports over the years, obtained in early October by The Independent through Missouri’s Sunshine Law, shows the Hawaii expense wasn’t an isolated event.

On at least nine occasions since 2018, Plocher spent campaign money on conference registration, airfare, hotels and other travel expenses, and then also sought reimbursement from the legislature.

In each instance, Plocher was required to sign a sworn statement declaring that he had used “personal funds” to pay the expenses.

Campaign and legal experts interviewed by The Independent say an elected official is allowed to use campaign money for official business. Or, they can use personal money and then request reimbursement from the state.

But doing both could violate state and federal law.

“You have to choose one way or the other,” said Chuck Hatfield, a longtime Democratic attorney in Jefferson City. “ You can’t do both. And depending on what the facts are, there could be reason to believe there was a crime.”

Plocher began paying back some of the money he has received inappropriately last week, sending a letter to House administration on Friday saying he “inadvertently sought and received reimbursements.”

In an emailed statement to The Independent on Monday, Plocher said he sent the letter prior to being contacted by The Independent.

“I am in the process of completing a full review of all expenditures and will correct any additional administrative errors in the spirit of full transparency,” Plocher said.

News about Plocher’s spending comes as he was already facing scrutiny — including drawing the attention of federal law enforcement — over his push to convince the House to spend $800,000 to hire a private company to manage constituent information. Nonpartisan staff accused Plocher of illegal and unethical conduct in pursuit of the contract, including threatening the employment of the chief clerk.

In the fallout from the controversy, Plocher fired his chief of staff.

On Friday, the House ethics committee is scheduled to convene to discuss a “personnel inquiry.” While the committee members have given no hints about the focus of the closed-door hearing, either publicly or privately, it is widely believed to be about Plocher.

The Missouri State Capitol on Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri State Capitol on Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Jefferson City.

Trip to Hawaii

Plocher’s actions could have violated at least three state laws.

Submitting false expense reports could be prosecuted as stealing from the state, a class A misdemeanor. It could also be considered false declaration, a class B misdemeanor that involves knowingly submitting any written false statement.

And while it is permissible to use campaign money for official government business, campaign contributions can’t be converted to personal use, said Julie Allen, a former executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission who was speaking broadly about the situation without direct knowledge of Plocher’s specific expenses.

“If someone were receiving money from their campaign committee and also seeking reimbursement from some public entity, like the House or Senate, then they are certainly getting double their actual expense,” Allen said. “That could mean they are using campaign money for personal use.”

There is a federal law that could also apply if the amount misappropriated exceeds $5,000.

Plocher’s most recent false expense report, according to the records, involves his trip to Hawaii.

On. Jan. 17, his campaign reported spending $1,199.60 for airfare to Hawaii for the ULC conference.

He first mentioned the trip in official correspondence on July 11, when he wrote to the chairman of the House accounts and administration committee advising him that he would be attending the ULC conference and would be seeking reimbursement.

He made no mention in that email of any specific costs.

On Aug. 7, after returning from the conference, Plocher formally requested that the House reimburse him for $4,862.77.

Of that total, $3,663.17 was for his seven-day stay at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. The remaining $1,199.60 was for his Southwest Airlines flight to Hawaii.

A few days later, legislative staff noticed a problem.

The House was not allowed to cover the nearly $400 that Plocher spent on valet parking, an administrative staffer wrote in an email to his office. And because the airfare was purchased in January it was not eligible for reimbursement.

“The airfare shows it was paid on Jan. 15, 2023,” the legislative staffer wrote, “which is past the 90-day policy for reimbursement. He also has seven charges at $55 each for valet parking that we don’t reimburse for.”

Plocher called the House clerk to make his case, and the same day wrote a letter stating that he purchased the plane ticket in January in order to get a reduced rate. He said he was unaware of the 90-day rule and wanted to be reimbursed.

In a written note on Plocher’s letter, the chief clerk instructed staff to proceed with payment.

As with all of his requests, Plocher’s expense report stated that the payments were made with “personal funds, for which I have not been reimbursed.”

House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, right, speaks to legislators on Friday, May 12, 2023, before the last day of the legislative session in Jefferson City, Mo.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, right, speaks to legislators on Friday, May 12, 2023, before the last day of the legislative session in Jefferson City, Mo.

Five years of expenses

The first example of what appears to be a false report filed by Plocher dates back to 2018.

His campaign spent $431.96 on airfare with Southwest Airlines in July of that year. Plocher requested the House repay him $112.36 for a portion of the airfare to the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States that wasn’t covered through a scholarship offered by the organization.

That same month, Plocher’s campaign spent $206.05 on “lodging” at a Hyatt hotel. A few weeks later, he requested the House reimburse him $206.05 for accommodations at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch for the Southern Legislative Conference.

His campaign also paid the $300 registration fee for the Southern Legislative Conference, and Plocher was later reimbursed by the House.

In July 2019, Plocher’s campaign reported spending $603.95 on “ULC conference rental car” and $1,923.36 on “ULC conference lodging.”

A month later, he was reimbursed by the House for $603.95 for the rental car. A portion of his lodging was covered by a scholarship, so Plocher only requested the remaining portion — $216.95 — be reimbursed by the House.

His campaign also picked up the $600 registration fee for the ULC conference that year, and Plocher was also reimbursed for that cost.

In June 2022, Plocher was approved by the House to be reimbursed $945 for five nights at a hotel to attend a conference in Philadelphia.

A month later, his campaign spent $963.65 for a hotel in Philadelphia for what was described on the disclosure form as a “campaign conference.” Plocher was reimbursed by the House in August for his stay at the Loews Hotel Philadelphia.

In January of this year, Plocher submitted a notice to the House asking permission to spend $325 to pay the registration to the State Legislative Leaders Foundation conference in Washington, D.C.

A week later, his campaign paid the $325 registration fee, and a week after that he was reimbursed for the cost by the House.

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

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Jason Hancock