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Opinion: Recognizing when it’s time to go

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The Missouri House Ethics Committee investigation of Speaker Dean Plocher reminds me of the recent history of House speakers who ended their time in office under a legal or ethical cloud.

As the Missouri Independent has reported, Plocher sought House reimbursement for travel that had been covered by campaign funds. And he pressured House staff to go around the normal contract bidding process in an unsuccessful push to award a lucrative software contract to a private company to handle House emails.

Subsequently, the House Ethics Committee investigation of Plocher concluded he had obstructed the committee’s investigation.

Over the years, I’ve covered more than my share of House speakers who ended their tenure under a cloud of suspicion.

In 1976, Democrat Richard Rabbitt resigned to run for lieutenant governor. But it turned out he was under federal investigation that ultimately led to conviction for seeking funds for support of legislation backed by transportation interests.

In 1996, Democrat Bob Griffin resigned as House speaker shortly before federal indictments were issued involving efforts for special interests. His 15 years as speaker set a Missouri record for a House speaker that will not be repeated without repeal of legislative term limits.

In 2009, legislative term limits forced Rod Jetton out of office after serving a full four-year term as speaker. However, he subsequently was investigated for a pay-for-play scheme involving legislation involving adult entertainment businesses. No indictments were issued, but he did plead guilty to a sexual assault charge. Plocher recently hired Jetton to be his chief of staff.

In 2011, Republican Steve Tilley resigned as speaker five months before his term would end citing a desire to spend more time with family and to become a lobbyist. However, he subsequently faced FBI scrutiny for his lobbying efforts but was not charged with a crime.

In 2015, Republican John Diehl resigned less than six months into his speakership after reports he had been sending sexually inappropriate text messages to a 19-year-old legislative intern.

What stands out for me in this near one-half century history covering House speakers is how many recognized their time was over, despite holding one of the most powerful leadership positions in Missouri’s General Assembly.

Obviously, criminal investigations and loss of support from party colleagues were significant factors for those who resigned before their terms in office had expired and/or dropped future political aspirations. But what remains is that they ultimately recognized it was time to go.

I would be remiss if I did not list the speakers I’ve covered who left without being under a cloud of scandal.

In 1977, Democrat Ken Rothman described himself in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article as a “reform candidate” when he ran for governor. He sure was. He cited his leadership in getting the state’s Sunshine Law requiring open government meetings and records and campaign finance restrictions.

Realize, when Rothman was speaker, there was a strong conservative faction of legislative Democrats that Rothman was able to win over for governmental accountability measures.

In 2000, Democrat Steve Gaw completed eight years as speaker. I remember him as a moderate and a public policy wonk, particularly on utility issues. He ultimately became chair of the utility-regulating Public Service Commission.

In 2003, Catherine Hanaway became the first woman Missouri House speaker after she organized a campaign that won GOP control of the House that Republicans continue to hold today.

As a former federal prosecutor and journalism graduate, she was a tremendous source for reporters. She was candid and did not resist tough questions.

In 2009, Ron Richard moved from the Senate’s top leader as president pro tem to speaker of the “lower chamber.” It was a unique move in my time covering the legislature. Richard’s biography reports it was the first time in 100 years that a Missouri House speaker previously served as a Senate leader.

Richard was one of the most effective legislative leaders I’ve covered. His ability to win support in a Republican-controlled legislature for an increase in the state’s motor-fuel sales tax. Beyond his ability to forge agreements, he also has a devoted historian about the General Assembly and its traditions.

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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