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Embattled Missouri House speaker lashes out at GOP detractors

Jason Hancock, Missouri Independent

House Speaker Dean Plocher Missouri House of Representatives

took to social media on Tuesday to hit back at Republicans criticizing him over revelations he repeatedly charged the state for travel that was already paid for by his campaign.

But as Plocher took aim at his detractors, he continued to draw fire himself — including a possible new opponent in the 2024 race for lieutenant governor.

The Independent reported Monday that on at least nine occasions since 2018, Plocher spent campaign money on conference registration, airfare, hotels and other travel expenses and then sought reimbursement from the legislature.

In each instance, Plocher was required to sign a sworn statement declaring that the payments were made with “personal funds, for which I have not been reimbursed.”

Plocher, a Republican from Des Peres who last week announced he was running for lieutenant governor, chalked up the situation to “administrative errors,” vowing to review all of his expenses and reimburse any money he was wrongly paid over the years.

He began writing checks to the House last week and has thus far paid back nearly $4,000.

But even as he tried to move past the controversy by declaring the “sideshows and political spectacle must end so we can get back to doing the important work Missourians expect of us,” Plocher began lashing out at GOP officials who criticized his conduct.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, the GOP frontrunner for Missouri governor next year, posted on social media that the legislature should investigate the matter, and if the allegations of wrongdoing are confirmed, “take action to protect the integrity of the House of Representatives and the people’s money.”

Plocher responded by recycling an attack against Ashcroft from the 2016 GOP primary, asking Ashcroft on social media whether he will “pay back taxpayers the tens of thousands of dollars you owe them after dropping out of the Merchant Marine Academy.”

“Last I checked all dropouts have to pay back the people’s money,” he wrote, adding: “Jay, don’t throw rocks when you live in a glasshouse.”

Ashcroft attended the United States Merchant Marine Academy but did not graduate.

A spokesman for Ashcroft’s gubernatorial campaign said in an email to The Independent that it is “unfortunate that the speaker, caught with his hand in the cookie jar, is falsely lashing out at those who believe we have an obligation to protect, not abuse, taxpayer money.”

Plocher also went after Will Scharf, a GOP candidate for attorney general, who said the speaker “owes Missouri taxpayers an explanation, and if he can’t provide one he should resign.”

In response, Plocher criticized Scharf over the use of a self-destructing text-messaging app by staff of former Gov. Eric Greitens.

Scharf served as Greitens’ policy director, and nearly every member of the former governor’s team was using the app — a move seen by transparency advocates as an attempt to circumvent Missouri’s open records laws.

Because of his use of the app, called Confide, Scharf is “the last person to talk about government transparency,” Plocher wrote.

“Will, it’s time you provide an explanation or resign from your race,” Plocher said.

Scharf quickly responded, writing: “I hope the investigation into your ethics issues is as thorough as (former Attorney General Josh) Hawley’s was into the use of Confide. Hawley found that I hadn’t done anything wrong.”

The back-and-forth continued with Plocher posting critical news articles about Hawley’s Confide investigation being too lax.

As Plocher went after critics, more seemed to emerge. And one began making moves to join Plocher in the GOP primary for lieutenant governor.

Former state Sen. Bob Onder of Lake St. Louis changed his campaign committee in August to signal a run for lieutenant governor and gave himself $500,000 on Tuesday to kick start a potential candidacy. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch it was “highly likely” he would run.

If he enters the race, he would join Plocher, state Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, Franklin County Clerk Tim Baker and St. Louis County resident Paul Berry III in the GOP primary.

In a post on social media, Onder also took aim at Plocher’s false expense reports.

“This looks and smells like embezzlement,” Onder wrote. “It’s documented, happened (nine) times over years, and he only reimbursed after being caught. Plocher is the swamp and should resign.”

Plocher was already facing scrutiny over his push to convince the House to spend $800,000 to hire a private company to manage constituent information. Nonpartisan staff accused Plocher of illegal and unethical conduct in pursuit of the contract, including threatening the employment of the chief clerk.

In the fallout from the controversy, Plocher fired his chief of staff.

The Missouri House Ethics Committee is scheduled to meet Friday morning, and it is widely expected that Plocher will be the focus of the closed-door hearing.

House Majority Leader Jon Patterson, a Lee’s Summit Republican who is next in line to be speaker after Plocher, told The Kansas City Star that the House has a “bipartisan process in place to review these matters and ensure that Missourians can have confidence in the integrity of the General Assembly.”

“Upon the conclusion of their work,” Patterson said, “we will review and act upon their recommendations just as we have previously with similar matters.”

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