Attorneys for embattled Missouri House speaker criticize ethics investigation

David Steelman, an ex-member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators hired by House Speaker Dean Plocher as his attorney, speaks to reporters on April 23, 2024 (Jason Hancock/Missouri Independent).

Private attorneys hired by the top Republican in the Missouri House demanded on Tuesday that the ethics investigation into their client be formally dismissed. 

House Speaker Dean Plocher has still not publicly commented on the allegations of ethical misconduct that have hung over his final year in the legislature, or the later accusations that he pressured witnesses and obstructed the House Ethics Committee investigation. 

On Tuesday, he dispatched his attorneys — Lowell Pearson and David Steelman — to discredit the inquiry and criticize the Republican lawmaker appointed by Plocher to lead the ethics committee, state Rep. Hannah Kelly of Mountain View. 

In a letter to Kelly, and later at a hastily called press conference in the Capitol basement, Plocher’s defenders argued the investigation should have never occurred in the first place.  The letter included affidavits from some of the key players in the scandals that have swirled around Plocher arguing in his defense. 

“This investigation was mishandled from the start,” Pearson and Steelman’s letter read. 

Since late last year, Plocher has faced an investigation, as well as calls for his resignation, over his unsuccessful push for the House to sign an $800,000 contract with a private software company outside the normal bidding process; alleged threats of retaliation against nonpartisan legislative staff who raised red flags about that contract; purportedly firing a potential whistleblower; and filing years of false expense reports for travel already paid for by his campaign.

Last week, the ethics committee voted 6-2 to reject a report recommending a formal letter of disapproval for Plocher, that he hire an accounting professional to manage his expense reports moving forward and that he refrain from retaliation against any legislator or House employee who cooperated with the committee.

After the report was defeated, it became a public document. 

Kelly has subsequently said the investigation was severely hindered because of Plocher’s efforts to undermine the committee’s work. Specifically, Plocher refused to speak to an attorney hired by the committee to gather evidence and would not sign subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify. 

In addition to the delays, Kelly also accused Plocher of making efforts to “threaten witnesses, block our investigation and prevent this process from reaching its natural conclusion.”

On Tuesday, Steelman pushed back on that narrative, claiming the hiring of the attorney was “unlawful” and that it was the committee — not the speaker — who chose to drag out the process. 

“It was a drummed-up exercise trying to get rid of a speaker,” Steelman said of the investigation. 

Steelman, an ex-state lawmaker and former member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators, told reporters the reason Plocher refused to sign subpoenas was because they were designed to compel both him and his chief of staff, Rod Jetton, to testify. 

Both were willing to testify without a subpoena, Steelman said. 

That wasn’t the reason cited in rejecting the supboenas in the three letters from the speaker’s office to the committee in March and April. And in one of those letters, Plocher’s general counsel noted the committee initially sought five subpoenas.

Asked Tuesday why Plocher didn’t recuse himself from the start, or at least when subpoena requests started showing up to his office, Steelman said the speaker recused himself “when it mattered.” 

Steelman accused the ethics committee of failing to follow its own rules, including in how it hired an outside attorney. He suggested that it’s possible the speaker’s office could refuse to pay the attorney for her work if she was hired unlawfully.

A spokesman for the speaker’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether the roughly $14,700 in legal fees will be paid. 

Ultimately, Steelman said the ethics committee must reconvene and finish its work — which he believes means dismissing the complaint and declaring Plocher exonerated. 

No ethics committee hearings have been held since the report was released to the public. 

Kelly has not commented publicly, beyond a post on social media declaring that “because of the efforts by the speaker to threaten witnesses, block our investigation and prevent this process from reaching its natural conclusion, there is nothing more that can be done.”

“The report speaks for itself,” Kelly wrote last week, “as do the votes of the committee members.”

Plocher is running for the GOP nomination for Missouri secretary of state. He currently leads his seven Republican opponents by a wide margin in fundraising, with more than $1.3 million cash on hand between his campaign account and allied political action committee.

But nearly all of that was raised before the litany of scandals became public last fall that have dominated his last year as speaker of the Missouri House. 

After taking in nearly $400,000 for his campaign and PAC in 2023, he raised just $15,000 this year. 

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