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Missouri lawmaker accused of ‘unlawful’ conduct in push for contract, drawing FBI scrutiny

House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, waits for the Missouri House to finish voting on a motion during the annual veto session on Sept. 13, 2023.
Annelise Hanshaw
Missouri Independent
House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, waits for the Missouri House to finish voting on a motion during the annual veto session on Sept. 13, 2023.

The top Republican in the Missouri House is facing allegations he threatened to terminate the employment of a nonpartisan legislative staffer who resisted his monthslong push to hire a private company to manage constituent information.

House Speaker Dean Plocher vehemently denies the accusations, which were uncovered through public records obtained by The Independent under Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

But Dana Miller, chief clerk of the House since 2018 and a chamber staff member since 2001, wrote in an email to a GOP lawmaker last week about “threats made by Speaker Plocher concerning my future employment.”

She wrote that Plocher made statements to her “connecting this contract with campaign activity” — suggesting the speaker’s motivation was his 2024 campaign for lieutenant governor — and expressed that she had “growing concerns of unethical and perhaps unlawful conduct.”

Miller wasn’t the only legislative staffer expressing concerns. In another message obtained through the Sunshine Law, a House employee complained that the pressure for the contract was “insanely inappropriate” and would lead to more bad behavior if Plocher got his way.

In a statement to The Independent, Plocher insists that every action he took while pushing for the House to consider contracting with a private company was “open and transparent in the interest of good government and delivering efficient services to Missourians.”

He added: “No one has asked, received, nor will receive, any special treatment in regard to software contracts or any contracts while I am speaker.”

In the short term, the issue is dead, as a legislative committee voted last week to stick with the free, in-house constituent management program already in use.

But the saga’s fallout is far from over, and has drawn attention from federal law enforcement, with an FBI agent attending the legislative hearing last week where the idea was discussed.

The FBI investigates public corruption, surveilling federal, state and local governments. A spokeswoman for the agency declined comment.

‘He really wants it’

Nine months ago, the House revamped the software legislative offices can use to contact constituents and assist them when they reach out to their representatives. The redesign came after a working group of legislative staff spent months developing new features in an effort to make it more user friendly.

A Washington, D.C.,-based company called Fireside promised to provide a web-based program to replace the system at a cost of nearly $400,000 a year.

The company, a subsidiary of the California-based FiscalNote, has contracted with more than 100 members of Congress — including half of Missouri’s delegation — along with state legislatures and local governments around the country.

Plocher began advocating for making the change in May, soon after the legislative session adjourned for the year.

Also working on Fireside’s behalf was Bardgett and Associates, an influential Jefferson City lobbying firm whose clients include some of the highest profile companies and civic organizations in the state — Anheuser-Busch, the St. Louis Cardinals, Republic Services and Evergy, among others.

Rep. Dale Wright, a Farmington Republican who became chair of the House Administration and Accounts Committee this year, said in an interview last week that the speaker approached him about making the switch to Fireside because “he felt like we needed a more robust constituent management program.”

And Plocher, Wright said, was very eager.

“He really wants it,” Wright said. “He felt strongly that this would be good for the House and good for the members.”

In his statement to The Independent, Plocher said “one of the House’s main priorities is to identify potential efficiencies and cost-savings in government to protect taxpayer resources.”

Wright said he approached Miller with the idea, and she was hesitant. She informed him the current system was only a few months old, Wright said, and despite being recently revamped was being used by only a fraction of the 163 legislative offices in the House.

But she agreed to attend a demonstration by Fireside in June, and soon after wrote a memo to Wright laying out possible concerns.

The Fireside program could lead to lawmakers exporting data to use for campaign activity, Miller wrote in her memo, and switching from the current program housed on an internal server to a web-based program could leave constituent information vulnerable to hacking.

But among her biggest concerns at the time was the cost for something the House was already providing for free.

“The base quote for the proposed Fireside application would exceed $775,000 for the minimum two-year contract,” Miller wrote. “Outside of the Xerox printing services contract, this service would be the second-most costly outsourced expense.”

Wright said he shared Miller’s concerns with Plocher.

“I explained to the speaker that she doesn’t work for me,” Wright said. “I can’t force her to do anything. And he said, ‘Well, she does work for me.’”

When he relayed the conversation to Miller, Wright said she may have taken Plocher’s response as a threat. But he insists he didn’t see it that way, and has never felt any inappropriate pressure from the speaker or the lobbyists involved in the Fireside contract.

“I never felt any threat,” he said. “I don’t think she was threatened.”

He said he also informed Plocher that despite his wishes, the contract could not move forward without a proper bidding process. And that moving forward quickly would be impossible without a supplemental budget appropriation.

“We’d have to do three bids,” Wright said. “We have to do that.”

‘The House isn’t for sale’

The Missouri House chamber during debate on March 12, 2023 (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).
Tim Bommel
Missouri House Communications
The Missouri House chamber during debate on March 12, 2023.

Over the course of the summer, records show staff were increasingly expressing concern about what was happening behind the scenes.

In early July, a handful of lawmakers began submitting nearly identical letters to Wright’s office advocating for the Fireside contract. A draft of the letter, obtained through the Sunshine Law, shows it was originally sent to the lawmakers by an employee of Bardgett and Associates.

“Two more letters. We’ve received five now… all pretty much the same form letter,” Danyale Bryant, legislative director for House administrations and accounts, wrote in an email to Wright.

Wright wrote back to Bryant to say that there was no need to respond, as “I’ve always felt generic form letters, in most cases, don’t necessarily deserve a response, plus we don’t have enough solid information/direction to share.”

On July 11, Miller reached out directly to Plocher in an email to him and his staff — explaining her resistance to the Fireside contract, voicing concern about the pressure to sign off on it and asking for his help putting an end to it.

“Bottom line, this program is cost prohibitive, redundant and it is an unnecessary expense,” Miller wrote, adding that Fireside lobbyists have been “aggressively promoting this program, to the point that it is giving me cause for concern. I would appreciate your assistance in ensuring that this unsolicited pressure ceases.”

There is no record of Plocher ever responding in writing. But Wright appears to have spoken with him soon after Miller’s message.

In a July 18 email with his staff, Wright said Plocher “told me he would be reaching out to Dana when he returns from his meeting/vacation in Hawaii.”

Wright’s own staff began expressing concern about the situation.

“There’s literally zero valid reason for us to sign off on this and the fact that they just keep trying to push you into it is insanely inappropriate,” Bryant, who has worked for the House since 2015, wrote in a July 25 message to Miller.

She later added: “The House isn’t for sale, and if we don’t stop it here there will be (hundreds) more lined up at the door to get in as well.”

In late July, Miller cited the ongoing lobbying effort in deciding to share her memo laying out concerns with the Fireside program to the other members of the administration and accounts committee.

Soon after, she shared the memo with all 163 members of the Missouri House.

“My staff and I have been receiving inquiries from members who have been contacted by lobbyists promoting efforts to outsource our current constituent management program to a third-party vendor,” Miller said in an Aug. 8 email explaining why she was sending the memo.

Holly Foster, a legislative assistant working for Republican Rep. Dave Griffith of Jefferson City, echoed some of Miller’s concerns, writing in a July 31 email that she worried about turning over constituent information to a private entity.

“We deal with many personal issues daily and that information should not be accessed by anyone outside of this building,” she wrote.

Several lawmakers responded, agreeing with Miller that there was no need for a change.

“My father always told me to, ‘Dance with those that brung you,’” wrote state Rep. Travis Smith, a Republican from Dora. “Meaning stick with what you’ve got when you started. Would not make sense to change at this time.”

‘Something doesn’t feel right about this’

Despite the pushback from legislative staff, Plocher pressed ahead, presenting the idea to his GOP colleagues at the party’s annual summer caucus in August and asking Wright to hold a public hearing to consider switching to Fireside when lawmakers convened for a veto session in September.

The day of the Sept. 12 hearing, Miller sent an email to Wright and his staff.

“As you are aware, we have been engaged in ongoing conversations regarding efforts to outsource House constituent management services,” she wrote. “Despite providing concrete facts to you, Speaker Plocher and the members, these efforts have continued.”

Miller wrote that she discussed her concerns with Wright on numerous occasions — both about the contract and the lobbying effort.

“Since May,” she wrote, “we have also had over a dozen phone conversations regarding this matter, so at this point you are absolutely aware of my continued concerns about this company, the lobbyists that represent it, as well as the involvement of Speaker Plocher and the growing concerns of unethical and perhaps unlawful conduct.”

In an email to The Independent, John Bardgett, president of Bardgett and Associates, decried the “shocking and false accusations” that “attack my, and my colleague’s, character and my firm’s reputation.”

“Threatening individuals is not a very effective advocacy tool and not one that is employed or tolerated at our firm,” Bardgett said.

Wright went forward with the hearing last week, and the idea of switching to Fireside faced pointed criticism from those who showed up to testify.

“Something doesn’t feel right about this,” said Jason Moore, an information technology worker from St. Louis County who traveled to Jefferson City to testify. “We should table this. Now is not the time.”

Bev Ehlen, a longtime conservative advocate, testified that she had real concerns about a private company having access to constituent data.

“It’s not a wise thing to be spending $800,000 on something that may subject our data to eyes outside of Missouri,” she said.

On a voice vote, the committee unanimously decided to stick with the in-house system for at least the next two years.

In a statement to The Independent, Miller stood by her actions in opposing the contract and voicing concerns about the lobbying effort.

“As an officer of the House of Representatives,” she said, “I take an oath to uphold the constitution, and this includes protecting the House as an institution. I take those responsibilities seriously.”

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

Jason Hancock is a reporter covering politics and policy for The Missouri Independent.