Ethics hearing, GOP caucus could determine speaker’s fate

Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres is seen at the microphone in this file photo. (Photo by Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications)

Whether Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher can survive the storm of scandals that has engulfed him during the last month could start to come into better focus after two meetings this week.

The first is Wednesday, when Plocher will for the second time be the subject of a hearing of the Missouri House Ethics Committee -- though the scope of the panel's deliberations is expected to expand to include a newly filed complaint against the speaker alleging "ethical misconduct."

The following day, House Republicans will gather in Jefferson City for their annual winter caucus, an event that normally focuses on formulating an agenda for the upcoming legislative session but this year could be overtaken by the speaker's plight.

A formal investigation by the ethics committee, or an uprising within his caucus, could put Plocher's future in peril. But so far, he has maintained his innocence and flatly rejected any suggestion that he should resign.

"I look forward to leading the House to produce good conservative legislation such as property tax cuts, personal property tax reform," Plocher said during a live-streamed interview with one of his supporters. "There's a lot of good things to do."

Yet the calls for his ouster from within his party continue.

"After arduous deliberation, I feel that I can no longer remain silent in our caucus, and I am asking for Representative Plocher's resignation as House speaker," state Rep. Adam Schwadron, a Republican from St. Charles and a candidate for secretary of state, wrote in an email to his fellow House Republicans on Sunday. "As elected representatives, I feel that our standards of conduct must be beyond reproach, and doubly so for elected leadership."

"Unlawful conduct"

Plocher's troubles spilled out into the public in September, when he was accused of threatening to fire nonpartisan legislative staff as part of a push to get the House to award a lucrative contract to a private company to manage constituent information.

Records obtained by the Independent through the Missouri Sunshine Law document allegations that Plocher connected the success of the contract to the 2024 campaign -- in which he is running for lieutenant governor -- and engaged in "unethical and perhaps unlawful conduct."

The ordeal even garnered attention from federal law enforcement, with the FBI attending the September legislative hearing where the contract was discussed and voted down. The FBI investigates public corruption, surveilling federal, state and local governments.

A few weeks later, the Independent revealed Plocher filed false expense reports with the legislature going back to 2018 seeking reimbursement for costs already paid for by his campaign.

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

Soon after the Independent's story was published, Plocher began facing calls for his resignation, including from several statewide Republican candidates and a handful of members of the House GOP caucus.

Plocher has flatly denied any wrongdoing, chalking up the contract issue to a misunderstanding and the false expense reports to a "checkbook error." He started paying back the illegal reimbursements, saying that he and his wife -- who is also his campaign treasurer -- caught the mistakes and self-reported them.

But though the false reports went back years, Plocher didn't begin making repayments until two weeks after the Independent submitted a Sunshine request Oct. 5 seeking his expense reports.

Jonathan Ratliff, a longtime political consultant who advises Plocher as well as the House Republican Campaign Committee, said in a recent television interview that "if anybody knows Dean at all, there's not a corrupt bone in his body."

"He's a little, you know, he's a football player," Ratliff said, referring to the fact Plocher played offensive guard at Middlebury College in Vermont. "He's got the kind of, like, meathead, jockhead approach. He's also an attorney, so a little brains up there, too. But he talks a lot. He kind of runs a little loose. He wasn't paying a lot of attention in this moment. And I think that caught up with him."

But Will Scharf, a Republican running for Missouri attorney general, said in a recent radio interview that "for the good of the Republican Party, and for the good of the House, Dean should step down as House speaker."

Scharf later added: "The conservative base wants him to go."

Ethics complaint and chief of staff

Adding to Plocher's trouble is a formal ethics complaint filed against him late last month by one of his fellow lawmakers.

The details of the complaint, as well as who submitted it, are considered confidential. As first reported by the Kansas City Star, Plocher recused himself from handling the complaint, passing it along to the office of House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Henderson so it could be referred to the ethics committee.

The committee will be required to look into the complaint and issue a report. It can launch a formal inquiry, which could involve hiring outside investigators, and ultimately suggest punishment if warranted.

Proceedings of the committee are confidential, and none of the discussions, testimony or evidence gathered is public until a report is issued. The 10-member committee is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

Wednesday's ethics committee meeting is the second that will be focused on Plocher. The first was convened primarily over Plocher's decision Oct. 17 to fire his chief of staff. Last week, the general counsel in the speaker's office abruptly resigned after four years in the job, leaving the top two staff positions in Plocher's office empty.

Plocher is expected this week to announce a new chief of staff, with most anticipating the job will go to Rod Jetton, a former Missouri House speaker whose political career cratered more than a decade ago following a federal bribery investigation and allegations of violent sexual assault.

The Missouri Independent,, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.