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Missouri House ethics panel to hold further hearings in Plocher investigation

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, 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.

Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, is accused of pressuring staff to buy expensive software and seeking state reimbursement of campaign-paid expenses.

The Missouri House Ethics Committee appears to be prepared to advance an investigation over House Speaker Dean Plocher’s personnel actions and expense reimbursement requests.

The panel met behind closed doors for more than two hours on Wednesday. The discussion is confidential, but afterward Chair Hannah Kelly told assembled reporters that another hearing would be scheduled, suggesting that the committee is preparing the next step, to examine the substance of the allegations against Plocher.

Plocher is the subject of an inquiry into House personnel matters and a complaint about “unethical conduct” in office.

When the committee was finished for the day, Kelly, R-Mountain Grove, declined to comment on the questions considered.

“We have a job to do here in this committee and due to the House rules, as has been previously mentioned, I cannot comment,” Kelly said. “I can assure you as chairman that due process will be followed and confidentiality is of the utmost importance, for the integrity of the committee as well as the House.”

Plocher has been under fire since September, when he was accused of threatening to fire nonpartisan legislative staff as part of a push to get the House to award a lucrative contract to a private company to manage constituent information.

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

On Oct. 17, Plocher fired his chief of staff Kenny Ross, giving no explanation for the change. Ross was hired a few hours later by Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden.

A few days later, The Independent reported that Plocher filed false expense reports with the legislature going back to 2018 seeking reimbursement for costs already paid for by his campaign.

Plocher has flatly denied any wrongdoing, chalking up the contract issue to a misunderstanding and the false expense reports to a “checkbook error.” He started paying back the illegal reimbursements, saying that he and his wife — who is also his campaign treasurer — caught the mistakes and self-reported them.

But though the false reports went back years, Plocher didn’t begin making repayments until two weeks after The Independent submitted a Sunshine request on Oct. 5 seeking his expense reports.

While the committee process will be time-consuming, Plocher’s ability to remain in office while waiting for the results is in doubt. House Republicans will caucus Thursday in Jefferson City and are likely to discuss whether he should remain in his office or step aside, several GOP members said.

State Rep. Adam Schwadron, R-St. Charles, on Sunday sent colleagues a letter calling for Plocher to resign as speaker, stating that “these events and the questions they raise look horrible.”

GOP members in the Capitol on Wednesday declined to say on the record whether they expect the caucus to vote on Plocher’s continued leadership. Speaking anonymously, one said he would wait for the committee to make a report while another said they were waiting until after the caucus to speak publicly.

While there is no official confirmation that the committee is investigating Plocher, several actions by other House members – and Plocher himself – leave little doubt that it is about the speaker. House Assistant Minority Leader Richard Brown of Kansas City, vice chair of the ethics committee, recused himself from the proceedings to avoid a conflict of interest. Brown is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, the same office Plocher is seeking.

Brown was replaced temporarily by committee by Rep. David Tyson Smith of Columbia and Rep. Robert Sauls, D-Independence, took Brown’s place as ranking minority member and vice chair of the committee.

Plocher, who is required to pass complaints about any House member to the committee within 14 days of it being filed, instead recused himself and sent it to House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Henderson for action.

When the committee was finished for the day, Kelly declined to comment on the questions considered. But the committee’s rules, outlined in a resolution approved by the House in February, point to what is next.

When a complaint is received, the first step is for the committee to determine whether the complaint was filed in the proper form. Once the committee is satisfied that it is, a vote is held on whether to proceed to a “primary hearing” where the subject of the complaint is given a chance to answer the charges.

The committee must allow 21 days for the answer to be received in writing. The answer can be an objection to the jurisdiction of the committee to conduct an investigation.

“The complainant and alleged victim shall also be notified, in writing, of the action of the Committee,” the rules state.

At the conclusion of the primary hearing, the committee has the choice of dismissing the complaint, proceeding to a formal hearing, behind closed doors, or allowing the member to accept a sanction for misconduct.

If the investigation proceeds to a formal hearing, the committee’s investigation is guided by the rules and the committee has 45 days after it finishes taking testimony to deliver a report to 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.

Rudi Keller