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Dean Plocher accused of ‘absolute obstruction’ in Missouri House ethics probe

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

Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher obstructed an investigation of his official acts through pressure on potential witnesses and refusing to issue subpoenas, bipartisan leaders of the House Ethics Committee alleged Monday.

Some potential witnesses allegedly refused to speak out of fear Plocher would use his power as speaker to retaliate against them. Others were out of reach because the speaker decided who the committee could compel to testify. And Plocher refused to cooperate with the attorney hired to collect evidence for the committee.

Details of the alleged obstruction were contained in a report laying out findings from the ethics committee’s months-long investigation that was released Monday night. The report concluded the committee lacked direct evidence of ethical misconduct in Plocher’s advocacy for a six-figure software contract, in his firing of a former staffer or in years of filing false expense reimbursement reports.

Journalist Jason Hancock discusses this story on 'The Politically Speaking Hour on St. Louis on the Air'

But Republican state Rep. Hannah Kelly of Mountain Grove, the committee’s chair, and Democratic state Rep. Robert Sauls of Independence, the vice chair, said the report demonstrates “absolute obstruction” that hindered the committee’s efforts to get to the truth.

Kelly took the unusual step of conducting Monday’s hearing in open session.

All previous hearings had been closed from the public.

The committee ultimately voted down the draft report, but because the hearing was not closed, the report became a public record.

Kelly said she decided to ensure the report would become public after Plocher’s private attorney went on the radio on Friday to criticize the fact that all the hearings were being conducted behind closed doors.

“Secrecy never works,” said David Steelman, an ex-legislator and former member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators who was hired by Plocher to defend him in the ethics probe.

Steelman’s statements follow weeks of public criticism of the committee’s work by Plocher’s allies. Kelly said releasing the draft report addresses Steelman’s demand for more transparency.

Kelly also hinted that someone on the committee was leaking confidential information from the investigation, though she declined to elaborate.

“We have come to the end of this process,” Kelly told reporters after the hearing. “I have done all I can do… you do all you can, and then when you’ve done all you can, put everything on the table.”

Plocher, a candidate for secretary of state, declined comment Monday evening.

Missouri State Rep. Hannah Kelly, center, during Monday’s hearing of the House Ethics Committee.
Jason Hancock
The Missouri Independent
Missouri State Rep. Hannah Kelly, center, during Monday’s hearing of the House Ethics Committee.

‘Impair public confidence’

The rejected report recommended a formal letter of disapproval for Plocher, that he hire an accounting professional to manage his expense reports moving forward and that he refrain from retaliation against any legislator or House employee who cooperated with the committee.

The report also recommended further review by the House into allegations of threats made against legislative employees during the course of the investigation.

Plocher’s actions “substantially impair public confidence in the General Assembly,” the report states.

After the report was defeated by the committee on a 6-2 vote, Kelly said she wasn’t sure what happens next. The committee is scheduled to meet again Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon.

The report presented to the committee Monday was the summation of hours of closed-door debate last week, Kelly said. But six of the nine committee members who were present — two Republicans and four Democrats — voted against it.

Only Kelly and Democratic state Rep. Robert Sauls of Independence, the committee’s vice chair, voted in favor of the report. State Rep. Cyndi Buchheit-Courtway, a Republican from Festus, voted “present.”

Republican Rep. John Black of Marshfield asked the committee to go into closed session to debate the report further. Kelly declined.

The only member to offer any thoughts after the meeting ended besides Kelly and Sauls was GOP Rep. Rick Francis of Perryville, who said he voted not because he wanted more discussion about what should be included in the report.

Sauls said Monday’s hearing was designed to inject more transparency into the process.

“Sunshine would actually help maybe get to the bottom of this,” he said.

Plocher’s troubles spilled out into the public in September, when he was accused of engaging in “unethical and perhaps unlawful conduct” as part of a months-long push outside the normal bidding process to get the House to award an $800,000 contract to a private company to manage constituent information.

As part of that contract push, Plocher allegedly threatened the jobs of nonpartisan staff who raised red flags.

A month later, The Independent reported Plocher had on numerous occasions over the last five yearsillegally sought taxpayer reimbursement from the legislature for airfare, hotels and other travel costs already paid for by his campaign.

Ploocher repaid the illegal reimbursements, but they 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.

Plocher was required to sign a sworn statement with each expense report declaring that he had used “personal funds” to pay the expenses.

And while it is permissible to use campaign money for official government business, it is a crime for campaign contributions to be converted to personal use.

On the constituent management contract, the report concluded there was no direct evidence to indicate an ethical violation or “quid pro quo” by Plocher.

As for the threats against nonpartisan staff, there was also no direct evidence implicating the speaker, though the report states that several employees testified under oath about threats and a “negative work environment.”

On the expense report, Plocher eventually testified to the committee that the multiple false reports over the course of years was an “accounting error” and a “lack of oversight on my part.”

Plocher testified that he and his wife, who was his campaign treasurer, discovered the illegal reimbursements and decided to take action.

But he didn’t begin repaying them until weeks after The Independent submitted a request for the expense reports. And the committee discovered someone else had requested the reports even earlier.

In both instances, Plocher’s legislative staff were made aware of the requests, the report noted, and his office was provided with copies of the records before they were turned over to the requester.

Plocher was also accused of retaliating against a possible whistleblower when he fired his chief of staff last year. The speaker’s political consultant, David Barklage, testified that he recommended Plocher fire his chief of staff.

The former chief of staff refused to testify.

Obstruction and intimidation

The attorney hired to collect evidence for the committee marveled at the roadblocks she said Plocher and his associates put up to obstruct her work.

“I have not encountered more unwilling witnesses in any investigation in my career,” the attorney wrote in a report to the committee in March. “The level of fear expressed by a number of the potential witnesses is a daunting factor in completing this investigation.”

The report detailed how one witness, who was anonymous, feared their employment was at risk for testifying before the committee. It also states that the potential witness was “highly encouraged” not to testify by another Republican lawmaker close to the speaker.

Plocher also did not respond to at least three interview requests by the attorney. He eventually agreed to testify to the committee in mid-March.

The committee met in a legislative hearing room, with witness testimony taken under oath by a court reporter who appeared by Webex. Because of this, the report states that House IT staff arranged for every committee member to have a secure laptop that remained in the locked hearing room at all times.

On March 13, the report states, Plocher’s general counsel in the speaker’s office “used his position of authority to make a House administrative employee unlock” the hearing room so he could “take photographs.”

The employee who took the pictures refused to testify about why he was taking photos in the closed hearing room.

The rejected report also contains recommendations for improving the ethics process, including giving the committee the power to look into obstruction of an investigation and a policy protecting House employees from retaliation.

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.