Missouri ethics panel starts inquiry as House Speaker Plocher faces calls to resign

The Missouri House Ethics Committee met behind closed doors for more than four hours on Friday to discuss a “personnel inquiry” in a meeting that had been widely expected to focus on embattled House Speaker Dean Plocher.

While committee members remained quiet after the meeting citing confidentiality rules, the issues surrounding the top Republican lawmaker appear far from over. The committee, which reviews complaints against House lawmakers, is scheduled to meet again to discuss the same inquiry on Nov. 8.

Friday’s meeting comes as Plocher, a Republican from St. Louis County who is running for lieutenant governor in 2024, is facing calls to resign after reports surfaced this week that he received government reimbursements over several years for expenses also paid for by his campaign. He has started to pay back the money he improperly received.

In recent weeks, Plocher has also come under scrutiny over an unsuccessful push for the House to hire a company to manage constituent information and a decision to fire his chief of staff last week.

State Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican, on Friday joined a group of Republican lawmakers who have called for the speaker to step down.

Plocher, who did not appear to be at Friday’s hearing, did not return a call for comment. Plocher said Thursday that he would “absolutely not” resign and downplayed the controversies.

Before the committee, which is made up of five Republicans and five Democrats, met in secret, state Rep. Hannah Kelly, a Mountain Grove Republican and committee chair, urged her colleagues not to talk about the focus of the hearing.

“It is essential that we maintain this confidentiality until we as a committee are ready to release our findings,” she said. “The work of this committee involves sensitive matters that may impact the lives and well-being of individuals, organizations and society as a whole.”

State Rep. Rick Francis, a Perryville Republican, questioned Kelly on the focus on the hearing, asking if the hearing was closed because it was related to hiring, firing or disciplining a House lawmaker. If it was related to policy, Francis said, the meeting should be held in the open.

“This is a personnel inquiry that we are addressing today,” Kelly responded. “Because of the confidentiality of the matter, it is very important to protect all parties involved.”

Kelly asked that anyone not involved in the hearing leave the room, which mainly included reporters covering the meeting.

Notably, House Chief Clerk Dana Miller, who has previously questioned Plocher’s ethics, remained in the room during several parts of the meeting. Records obtained through a public records request show that Miller wrote about Plocher’s push for the software contract in a September email to a Republican lawmaker.

In the email, she mentioned “threats made by Speaker Plocher concerning my future employment.” Miller wrote that Plocher made a statement to her “connecting this contract with campaign activity.” In the email, Miller also expressed “growing concerns of unethical and perhaps unlawful conduct.”

Last week, Plocher fired his top aide, Kenny Ross, writing in a letter to House lawmakers that, effective immediately, the office of chief of staff was “vacated.” The same day, Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, announced he had hired Ross as his director of strategic initiatives.

Friday’s hearing did not appear to center on a filed complaint, which is what the ethics commission typically reviews. State Rep. Richard Brown, a Kansas City Democrat, who is also running for lieutenant governor, did not recuse himself from the hearing.

Kelly told reporters after the hearing that while “personnel inquiry” was not included in the Missouri House ethics rules, the committee uses the U.S. House ethics rules as a guide. The U.S. House ethics rules allow for House members, officers or employees to request written opinions “with respect to the propriety of any current or proposed conduct of such Member, officer, or employee.”

Kelly said the committee would continue to discuss the personnel inquiry at its next meeting in November. Asked at what point the personnel inquiry would rise to something else, Kelly said she did not know.

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

Several Missouri House speakers in the modern era have faced significant controversies, including Bob Griffin, a Democrat and the state’s longest-serving speaker who served from 1981 to 1996, who was indicted and later convicted on bribery charges.

In 2015, then-Speaker John Diehl, a Republican, resigned from the post after The Star reported that he had been sending sexually-charged messages with an intern.