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Opinion: Does power corrupt in Missouri’s House?

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This column is prompted by the problems plaguing Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher, who is facing calls by his colleagues to resign because of financial double-dipping by seeking reimbursement from the House for travel expenses that had been paid by his campaign.

His troubles continue a pattern of House speakers who have run into trouble despite holding one of the most powerful positions in Missouri government.

Of the 15 House speakers I've covered in the past half century, five were subjects of criminal investigations or allegations of improper behavior. That is a staggering percentage of scandals for the top leader of the House compared with the Missouri Senate's top official, the president pro tem.

The only involuntary removal of a Senate president pro tem I covered was the ouster of Sen. Earl Blackwell in 1970 after he successfully won statewide voter approval to overturn the tax increase pushed by the fellow Democratic governor, Warren Hearnes.

So why the difference between the two chambers?

One obvious factor is the enormous powers of the House speaker to control the political futures of House members as well as the fate of legislation sought by special interests. In contrast, the powers of the Senate's top leader are restricted by rules and a long history of tradition that no leader has absolute control of the Senate chamber.

Almost every time a House speaker has faced allegations of wrongdoing, I’ve remembered the quote attributed to British Lord Acton two centuries ago that "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Another factor could be the Senate is much smaller, with only 34 members compared with 163 members in the House.

For years, I've sensed that the smaller number of Senate members helped create a stronger bipartisan community within the chamber that fosters adherence to appropriate behavior.

It can be a bipartisan standard as demonstrated when Senate Democrats joined Republicans in 2017 to censure a fellow Democrat, Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal, for a social media post expressing hope about a presidential assassination. Every Republican voted for the admonition against her, but so did six of the Senate's nine Democrats, including the Senate Democratic leader.

I wonder if fewer Missouri House members might be a vehicle for imposing stronger standards and pressure for appropriate behavior by their leaders.

Some senators confidentially described how the Senate was like a family where they could provide personal advice of "don't go there" when a colleague was considering unwise behavior.

The five House speakers I've covered who might have benefited from that advice were:

• 1976: Richard Rabbit was the first speaker I covered when I became a full-time statehouse reporter. Rabbitt resigned to make an unsuccessful race for lieutenant governor. However, he also faced a federal criminal investigation that subsequently led to conviction for seeking funds in exchange for favorable treatment of legislation backed by transportation interests.

• 1996: Bob Griffin was one of the most influential speakers I've covered. He served longer than any other Missouri House speaker. But he resigned after pleading guilty to charges that involved recommending to various special interests that they hire a lobbyist from whom he subsequently got payments.

• 2005: Rod Jetton served a full four-year term as speaker. But he subsequently pled guilty for sexual assault of a woman and was investigated for a pay-for-play scheme involving legislation to restrict sex shops. Jetton now has been hired by Plocher to be his chief of staff.

• 2012: Steve Tilley resigned as speaker five months before his term would end to become a lobbyist. The financial records of those lobbyist payments came under an FBI investigation. He faced FBI scrutiny over his activities both before he left the legislature and for years afterward, but he's never been charged with a crime.

• 2015: John Diehl, after The Kansas City Star reported he had been sending sexually inappropriate text messages to a 19-year-old House intern. He announced his resignation after he could not win sufficient support from a closed-door caucus of fellow Republican House members. Diehl's tenure as speaker lasted less than six months.

I'm indebted to Springfield News-Leader reporter Kelly Dereuck for her story on Plocher's problem that included a list of Missouri House speakers who resigned.

Her story helped confirm my own memories of those speakers.

Phill Brooks has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps. He is director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism.

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