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Missouri House Ethics Committee begins inquiry into personnel moves by Dean Plocher

Missouri Rep. Hannah Kelly, chair of the House Ethics Committee and R-Mountain Grove, speaks as the committee begins Friday work on an inquiry into personnel matters.
Rudi Keller
/
The Missouri Independent
Missouri Rep. Hannah Kelly, chair of the House Ethics Committee and R-Mountain Grove, speaks as the committee begins Friday work on an inquiry into personnel matters.

The Missouri House Ethics Committee met Friday for more than four hours on a personnel matter. Officially, the subject of the meeting is confidential. But sources confirmed that members discussed the issues surrounding embattled House Speaker Dean Plocher.

When it was over, state Rep. Hannah Kelly, a Republican from Mountain View and chair of the ethics committee, said the panel will meet again Nov. 8 for further deliberations.

No formal complaint is currently before the committee, and the meeting notice called it an “inquiry.”

Kelly said it is unclear when, or whether, the inquiry would become a full investigation — which would trigger sworn testimony and a report on whether misconduct occurred.

“That is a great question that I can’t answer,” Kelly said.

Except for the opening roll call and adjournment vote, the hearing was held behind closed doors. Under House and Ethics Committee rules, proceedings are confidential, and none of the discussions, testimony or evidence gathered is public until a report is issued either confirming or repudiating the alleged misconduct. The 10-member committee is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

The personnel controversies in the speaker’s office include Plocher’s decision on Oct. 17 to fire his chief of staff, Kenny Ross, who was also chief of staff to the three most recent Republican speakers — Todd Richardson, Elijah Haahr and Rob Vescovo.

Another personnel issue involving Plocher is tied to his heavy push for the House to purchase expensive constituent communications software and allegations he threatened to terminate the employment of a nonpartisan legislative staffer who resisted.

Since those episodes became public, The Independent reported that Plocher regularly sought reimbursements for expenses paid by his campaign fund. On at least nine occasions since 2018, Plocher spent campaign money on conference registration, airfare, hotels and other travel expenses, and then also sought reimbursement from the legislature.

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.”

Plocher has begun repaying the reimbursements two weeks after The Independent submitted a request for his expense reports, writing checks to the House for more than $4,000.

“You know, it’s a checkbook error, but there’s a lot of accounts bouncing around,” Plocher said Thursday during an interview streamed on social media. “It’s quite tedious.”

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, was elected speaker in January. He is barred from seeking another term and is among three Republican candidates intending to enter the 2024 primary for lieutenant governor.

Revelations about his expenses led quickly to calls for an investigation, with some prominent Republicans calling on Plocher to resign as speaker.

Will Scharf, a GOP candidate for attorney general, was among the first to criticize Plocher, calling on him to explain himself or resign. Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a candidate for governor, called for an investigation and action if wrongdoing is found. A second Republican candidate for governor, state Sen. Bill Eigel, said Plocher should immediately resign.

Three GOP House members – state Reps. Chris Sander of Lone Jack, Mazzie Boyd of Hamilton and Doug Richey from Excelsior Springs – have called for Plocher to resign.

On Friday, state Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Republican from Manchester and a candidate for State Treasurer, added to the calls for Plocher’s resignation.

“The recent revelations about Speaker Dean Plocher are troubling, to say the least,” Koenig said in a post on X, formerly called Twitter. “He violated the same campaign finance rule on nine different occasions and misused taxpayer funds. He must resign immediately so that we can get back to the business of serving Missourians.”

Plocher has defenders – state Rep. Brian Seitz of Branson warned his removal would create a spectacle.

“We do not want a debacle like what happened to the speaker in Washington, D.C.,” Seitz wrote on social media.

And Plocher himself has lashed out at critics, raising accusations about Ashcroft and Scharf and attacking The Independent for uncovering the issue.

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