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Why did Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher convert an entire office into a liquor pantry?

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 in May 2023 at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

For four years, state Rep. Mike Stephens occupied prime real estate on the third floor of the Missouri Capitol.

His office in room 306B certainly wasn’t the biggest in the space-starved statehouse, where staff often work out of musty, windowless rooms, and many lawmakers are stacked on top of each other in non-ADA compliant mezzanines.

But Stephens’ office was steps away from the House chamber. And it was the only one besides the speaker’s with direct access to the House Lounge — a room adorned with a Thomas Hart Benton mural where conference committees, leadership meetings and press conferences are often held.

For decades, it was reserved for the chairman of the House budget committee, but in more recent years was occupied by senior Republicans. Entering into his final term in the House, it was a relatively safe bet that Stephens would finish his legislative career in the coveted office space.

But in late 2022, he got word he’d be moving down the hall.

House Speaker Dean Plocher took over that space and converted it into what has been jokingly referred to as his “butler’s pantry,” a makeshift storage room stocked with liquor, beer, wine and soda to complement the supply in his office.

The move was part of a $60,000 renovation of Plocher’s office in late 2022 and early 2023, paid for with public funds by the House. Half the costs stemmed from expenses resulting from repairs to walls, baseboards and ceilings in the speaker’s office.

The other half, according to records obtained by The Independent through Missouri’s Sunshine Law, went towards new furnishings — to the tune of about $29,000, including $8,600 for a black leather sofa and armchairs, $2,500 for a new walnut table, $2,500 for a refrigerator with an ice maker, $5,000 for a custom cabinet to hold the refrigerator and $385 for two walnut trash can bins.

Plocher did not answer specific questions about the office conversion. Instead, he released an emailed statement to The Independent defending the overall cost of the renovation.

He noted that the last major overhaul of the office was completed in 2009. His office was pursuing the vision of the Missouri State Capitol Commission’s 2019 master plan, Plocher wrote, to “restore the speaker’s office and House chamber to its original historical significance.”

“These new investments were done alongside other interior renovation projects throughout the Capitol as suggested by the Missouri State Capitol Commission,” Plocher wrote, and consisted of “updated technology, furniture and energy-efficient infrastructure. The House chamber and speaker’s office have been, as close as possible, restored to their original historical significance.”

Stephens declined comment about his old office when reached by phone this week.

“I don’t think it does me any good to discuss that,” he said.

But the renovation is not without its critics.

State Rep. Tony Lovasco, a Republican from O’Fallon, noted that there are legislative offices that are inaccessible to constituents with disabilities. Other offices, he said, are so small they could be considered a closet.

One lawmaker is working out of a former vault on the second floor.

“We probably shouldn’t be eliminating offices at this point,” he said. “We shouldn’t be repurposing office space unless it’s absolutely necessary, and while I can’t speak to whether it was in this case, my guess is probably not.”

Renovation in a century-old building will always be more expensive, Lovasco said, but “$29,000 on furniture sounds like an enormously high number. That certainly doesn’t seem reasonable to me.”

The cost of the furniture in the speaker’s office “does seem excessive,” said Rep. Deb Lavender, a Manchester Democrat. And she would have preferred if the House budget committee was involved in a renovation of that size, instead of using the chamber’s core budget, because the process would have been more transparent.

But her main concern is the loss of office space for what she called a “questionable use.”

“We had a member that had an office on the fourth floor that was so small, the legislative assistant can’t get to behind her desk without closing the door of the closet,” Lavender said. “So with such a serious lack of space in the Capitol, I’m not sure we should be spending the public’s money to build a bar across the House Lounge from the speaker’s office.”

The first principle stated in the Missouri State Capitol Commission long range master plan focuses on the lack of functional space for legislators and staff and the need to “decompress space and remove the mezzanines.”

‘Substantial price difference’

The House Lounge on the third floor of the Missouri Capitol, home of Thomas Hart Benton’s mural “The Social History of Missouri."
Tim Bommel
Missouri House Communications
The House Lounge on the third floor of the Missouri Capitol, home of Thomas Hart Benton’s mural “The Social History of Missouri."

For nearly two months, the Missouri House Ethics Committee has been investigating Plocher over allegations of misconduct.

The inquiry was launched after The Independent revealed that Plocher on numerous occasions over the last five years illegally sought reimbursement from the legislature for airfare, hotels and other travel costs already paid for by his campaign.

Those illegal payments were documented in expense reports Plocher regularly filed with the House. The reports also detailed any taxpayer funds Plocher used to upgrade his office over the years, going back to when he first entered the legislature in 2016.

For example, Plocher had hoped to renovate of his previous office while he was serving as majority floor leader. But costs proved too high, with expense records showing Plocher settled for spending around $3,500 of public funds on new countertops, paint, bench covers and upholstery.

He spent a similar amount the year prior on a new desk and a veneer walnut desktop.

But those records didn’t include renovation expenses to the speaker’s office since Plocher began moving into the job late last year. That’s because the money for the speaker’s office renovation didn’t come from Plocher’s legislative expense fund. It came from House operating funds.

The Independent filed a new request seeking those documents on Nov. 10.

The last time a major remodel of the office had been completed was under then-Speaker Ron Richard in 2009, when new desks were purchased, furniture was reupholstered and hardwood floors were refinished, among other expenses.

In the years since, speakers have taken an approach that builds upon that work, such as recovering, refinishing and reupholstering chairs and desks as opposed to purchasing entirely new ones. For example, former Speaker Elijah Haahr had desks and credenzas refinished in 2018, though he did buy a new conference table for the office that year.

As Plocher was preparing to take over as speaker, the need to remove pealing wallpaper ended up requiring the replacement of drop ceiling tiles and baseboards. Energy-efficient lighting was also installed.

As the office was being remodeled, the decision was made to replace all the furniture — new desks, credenzas, bookcases and a conference table.

Plocher also wanted a new refrigerator for the office that included an ice maker, which required a custom cabinet to hold it along with a new water line and filtration system to service it. A special wood stain was requested for the cabinets to match the speaker’s gavel.

The priciest furniture expense was a black leather sofa and armchairs from Ethan Allen.

Originally, records show the House planned to purchase a floor model set in brown leather from Missouri Furniture in Jefferson City. But the speaker preferred black leather, which required a special order.

The set, which cost roughly $4,200, was manufactured in China, causing months of delays. In March, the order was canceled because the furniture was not expected to be delivered for at least two more months.

With Plocher wanting the furniture in place sooner, records show Chief Clerk Dana Miller went online and found a black leather set from Ethan Allen, at a cost of $8,366.

“I’m fine with whatever you want to do, but there’s a substantial price difference and there’s still a 4-6 week wait time for the items to ship,” a House employee wrote in an email to Miller in March regarding the Ethan Allen furniture.

Miller responded that the cost could be justified “because we are ordering historically appropriate furnishings that will be in permanent use in that office for at least a decade.”

The cost of refurnishing the office topped $29,000. But there were some requests Plocher had hoped to include that weren’t feasible.

A dishwasher couldn’t be installed in the office because it would have required the installation of a new drain line. And an inlay of the state seal on the coffee tables in his office was also deemed too costly.

Repurposing room 306B came with minimal cost, according to records, and it appears Plocher may have paid for the alcohol using his own campaign funds.

Twice during the legislative session, Plocher’s political action committee paid for “campaign meals” at a Jefferson City liquor store called Macadoodles — spending $194 in February and $350 in April. And he was seen on several occasions during session pushing a cart stacked with alcohol into room 306B.

Plocher did not respond to a question about the alcohol purchases. Alcohol consumption is prohibited everywhere in the Missouri Capitol unless it is part of a state government function and approved by the Board of Public Buildings. That prohibition does not include legislative offices.

Ethics investigation

In addition to Plocher’s false expense reports, the House ethics committee is also investigating allegations that he threatened the jobs of nonpartisan staff as part of his push to convince his colleagues to spend $800,000 to hire a private company to manage constituent information.

Three closed-door hearings have been held by the ethics committee so far, with the investigation likely to stretch into the new legislative session that starts Jan. 4.

Plocher, a Republican from Des Peres running for lieutenant governor, has flatly denied any wrongdoing and rejected all calls from his fellow Republicans to step down as speaker. He chalked up the false expense reports to a “checkbook error” and paid back the illegal reimbursements.

During an event in St. Louis late last month, Plocher told Spectrum News that “his conscience is clear.”

“I sleep well at night,” he said. “I’m not gonna let this sideshow distract me or the legislature from getting good work done for the state of Missouri.”

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

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