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Missouri House GOP caucus sticks with Plocher as speaker — for now

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 September veto session.

Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher scurried away from waiting reporters Thursday rather than answer questions about the events that have launched an ethics inquiry and caused some members of his party to ask for him to step down from his powerful post.

Plocher spent most of the afternoon in a closed-door Republican caucus meeting at the Missouri Farm Bureau headquarters in Jefferson City. During the meeting, members said, he gave his defense of seeking personal reimbursement for expenses originally covered by his campaign fund and his decision to fire chief of staff Kenny Ross.

Most of the members who spoke to reporters said the final verdict on Plocher will come after the House Ethics Committee concludes its investigation.

“The speaker was very forthright with us,” said state Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly.

Lewis said he thinks the majority of the caucus is behind the speaker, based on what they currently know.

“Anybody can make a mistake. If it’s a legitimate mistake, and that’s what’s proven, fix it and go on,” Lewis said. “If that’s what it is.”

Plocher’s explanation, however, didn’t satisfy state Rep. Doug Richey, a Republican from Excelsior Springs and one of the members who has called for Plocher to step aside as speaker. Members trust the ethics committee to be thorough, said Richey, who in October called on Plocher to resign “for the good of the caucus.”

But there are questions beyond the “formal response” from the House, he said.

“I mean, everyone already knows where I’m at,” Richey said.

Plocher’s troubles began in September when The Independent reported 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.

An FBI agent attended a legislative hearing where the idea of paying $800,000 for a two-year contract for the constituent services was discussed.

Then, a few weeks later, Plocher fired Kenny Ross as his chief of staff. Ross served as chief of staff to the last three Republican speakers — Todd Richardson, Elijah Haahr and Rob Vescovo. Plocher told the caucus during its meeting Thursday that he has hired former House Speaker Rod Jetton to replace Ross.

The decision to fire Ross became the subject of a “personnel inquiry” by the ethics committee. House Chief Clerk Dana Miller said Thursday that Ross remains on the House payroll pending the outcome of that inquiry.

Just days after Ross was fired, The Independent reported that Plocher, on at least nine occasions since 2018, had requested the House to reimburse him for conference registration, airfare, hotels and other travel expenses already covered by his campaign funds.

The Independent reviewed 300 pages of Plocher’s expense reimbursements that it obtained through Missouri’s Sunshine Law on Oct. 11.

In each instance, Plocher was required to sign a sworn statement declaring that the payments were made with “personal funds, for which I have not been reimbursed.”

The treasurer for his campaign committee is Plocher’s wife.

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. Plocher could also have run afoul of laws prohibiting campaign contributions from being converted to personal use.

Plocher, a Republican from Des Peres, has chalked up the situation to “administrative errors,” vowing to review all of his expenses and reimburse any money he was wrongly paid over the years. He began writing checks to the House two weeks after The Independent submitted a request for his expense reports.

“Missourians deserve complete transparency and accountability from their elected representatives, which I’ve delivered and will continue to deliver as speaker,” Plocher said in a statement posted last month on social media.

The ethics committee probe grew from a personnel inquiry to a complaint investigation this week. The panel met Wednesday for its first look at the complaint – which is confidential – and voted to hold additional hearings later this year.

State Rep. Barry Hovis, R-Cape Girardeau, said he wants to see the results of the committee investigation before deciding whether Plocher should remain as speaker.

“I will await the results of the Ethics Committee, which I think is the prudent thing to do,” Hovis said. “Being a police officer for 30 years. I’ve always felt that everybody is due their time to have that worked out. And I’m sure hopefully it’ll be forthcoming.”

House Majority Leader Jonathan Patterson of Lee’s Summit said the “vast majority” of the caucus accepted Plocher’s explanation and will not vote to push him out until the ethics committee process is complete.

If the inquiry goes to a full investigation, the committee must report its findings within 45 days of completing its evidence gathering.

“He offered a very reasonable explanation of what happened,” Patterson said. “I think he made mistakes, acknowledged them, apologized and took responsibility and is taking action to fix them.”

But State Rep. Peggy McGaugh, R-Carrollton, said the only sense she had of where the caucus stands is that members will withhold judgment until the ethics committee is finished.

“I don’t think there is a consensus,” she said. “But we’re all intaking information.”

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

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and state legislature as the Deputy Editor at The Missouri Independent.