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Feb. 29, 2024 |  By: Jason Hancock - Missouri Independent

‘Dark cloud’: Ethics investigation of Dean Plocher continues to hang over Missouri House

dean plocher

By Jason Hancock - Missouri Independent

Dean Plocher’s last year as speaker of the Missouri House wasn’t supposed to go this way.

The Republican from Des Peres was riding high at the end of the 2023 legislative session, able to point to big wins while pinning any disappointments on continued dysfunction in the state Senate. And he had amassed an impressive campaign war chest he hoped would help carry him to the lieutenant governor’s office in the upcoming elections. 

Entering the third month of the 2024 session, things couldn’t get much worse. 

Plocher has been accused over the last few months of, among other things, pushing for the House to enter into a contract with a private company outside the normal bidding process; threatening retaliation against legislative staff who pushed back on that contract; improperly firing a potential whistleblower; and filing false expense reports for travel already paid for by his campaign.  

The allegations sparked a formal investigation by the House Ethics Committee, which hired an outside attorney to lead the inquiry. He’s also faced calls for his resignation by several members of the GOP supermajority. 

Plocher’s hold on his speakership remains tenuous, and his campaign for lieutenant governor is now considered a longshot. His top legislative staff are gone, either fired or resigned in the wake of the scandals. Nearly every week a new story about him seems to emerge, and nearly every press conference he convenes of late ends with him storming out

Yet Plocher remains indignant, denying any wrongdoing and vowing to remain speaker. 

“I clearly have no intention to resign,” he told reporters earlier this month. 

But as the ethics probe drags on — the committee’s work is considered confidential until a final report is issued — it casts a foreboding shadow over the session and colors the perception of Plocher’s every move. 

“It’s definitely a dark cloud that’s overhanging everything that we do here,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat.

Scrutiny and suspicion

The ethics investigation continues behind the scenes, but its day-to-day impact is playing out in more subtle ways. 

Plocher’s decision to wait more than a month to refer to a committee any bills filed by two Republicans who called for him to step down a speaker drew accusations that he was using his office to retaliate against critics

State Rep. Mazzie Christensen, a Republican from Bethany, previously told The Independent that she was “absolutely being punished” for her public criticism of Plocher. 

Questions also swirled after Plocher created a new committee to review House rules and policy, with some fearing it was an attempt by the speaker to give himself more authority over legislative staff. 

Those concerns were fueled, in part, by public statements he and his surrogates made trying to pin the blame for his woes on disgruntled staff working against him and the earlier allegations of retaliating against House employees. 

The fact that the committee meets in the only House hearing room without live streaming capabilities did little to soothe these concerns. 

But state Rep. Paula Brown, a Democrat from Hazelwood who Plocher appointed co-chair of the policy review committee, said the speaker didn’t even talk to her about the committee before she found out she was helping lead it and has provided no direction for how the committee should work or where it should focus.  

In its handful of meetings this year, the policy review committee spent much of its time on things like ambiguity in House rules and discussing possible changes to clear up questions about things like employee leave and the chamber’s discrimination policies. 

Brown, who also serves on the House Ethics Committee, insists there is no cause for concern.

“I don’t anticipate major changes. A lot of this will be clean up,” Brown told The Independent late last month, noting that the panel can only make suggestions that would still have to be approved by the House Administration and Accounts Committee. 

The suspicion surrounding Plocher occasionally even rubs off on others. 

For example, following the revelations about Plocher’s false expense reports, Republican state Sen. Andrew Koenig publicly demanded the speaker “resign immediately” because he “violated the same campaign finance rule on nine different occasions and misused taxpayer funds.”

Last week, Koenig seemed to change his tune, posting on social media that he appreciated the way Plocher “addressed the accounting error” and that he was “impressed with how Dean has moved on toward leading the House on important legislation.”

The post drew accusations that Koenig was trying to curry favor with Plocher to avoid having his bills tied up or killed in the House by the speaker’s office. 

Koenig said Monday that’s not the case at all. 

Plocher wanted him to issue a full retraction of his statement, Koenig said, but his social media post was as far as he was willing to go. He cut no deals with the speaker, he said, but does think at this point it’s best to withhold judgment until the ethics committee releases its report. 

“It’s time to move on,” Koenig said.

Swirling scandals

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 to get the House to award an $800,000 contract to a private company to manage constituent information.

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

As those scandals swirled, Plocher fired his chief of staff. According to the Kansas City Star, that got the attention of the House Ethics Committee, which began looking into whether the staffer was protected as a whistleblower when he was fired.

Plocher even garnered attention from federal law enforcement, with the FBI attending the September legislative hearing where the constituent management contract was discussed and voted down. The FBI, which investigates public corruption, also conducted several interviews about Plocher. 

Since the ethics committee began its probe, Plocher has continued facing scrutiny. 

In December, The Independent reported Plocher spent $60,000 in taxpayer money to renovate his Capitol office, including converting another lawmaker’s office into a makeshift liquor cabinet Plocher referred to as his “butler’s pantry.” 

The Kansas City Star reported earlier this month that Plocher was the only legislator in the past three years to be granted exemptions from House travel policies, allowing him to spend more than allowed to upgrade a flight to Utah and get reimbursed for a flight to a conference in Hawaii.

And last week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the annual payroll for the speaker’s office ballooned more than $250,000 since Plocher took over