Capitol Perspectives: Punishment of legislators

February 19, 2021 10:00 am
The Missouri House floor for the 2019 State of the State address.

The Missouri House chambers during the 2019 State of the State address (photo courtesy of the Missouri Governors Office).

Missouri history provides a fascinating contrast to the US House vote to remove Rep. Marjorie Greene, R-Georgia, from committee assignments.

Unlike Greene, similar disciplinary actions in Missouri against members have avoided a partisan split and required a simple action by the leader of the legislator’s own party.

Currently, Missouri has three House members who have been denied committee assignments for conduct allegations.

But the best comparison with Greene arose in 2017 when, like Greene, it involved a social media reference by a Missouri legislator to violence against a top government official.

The social media post by then-Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University Cikty, was “I hope Trump is Assassinated!” For Greene, it was a Facebook “like” for a comment suggesting a bullet to the head of the U.S. House speaker.

Unlike the partisan split in Congress to Greene’s incendiary statements, the Missouri legislative response to Chappelle-Nadal was a bipartisan affair.

The Senate’s Democratic leader at the time, Sen. Gina Walsh, promptly announced stripping her fellow Democrat of committee assignments.

The first day the Senate was back in session, an overwhelming majority of both Democrats and Republicans approved a resolution censuring Chappelle-Nadal and urging her to resign.

This year, three Missouri lawmakers have been blocked from committee assignments.

First was Rep. Rick Roeber, R-Lee’s Summit, who House Speaker Rob Vescovo refused to name to any committee after three of Roeber’s adult children alleged he sexually and physically abused them when they where children.

Next was Rep. Wiley Price, D-St. Louis, charged by the House Ethics Committee with perjury in its investigation about an allegation that he had sex with an intern in violation of House rules.

A majority of both Republicans and Democrats approved the report which included a recommendation Price be denied committee assignments.

The next day, when the House Democratic leader submitted names of Democrats for the bulk of House committees, Price’s name was not to be found.

The latest to be denied committee assignments is Rep. Tricia Derges, R-Nixa, who was removed from her committees by the House speaker after federal felony charges involving fraud in sale of COVID-19 drugs.

While these four Missouri cases reflect a non-partisan approach missing in Congress, they also raise some troubling questions.

Denial of committee assignments significantly diminishes a member’s ability to serve the member’s constituents and communities.

It is in committees that legislators have far more influence to attach to bills and negotiate compromises before a measure comes before the much larger full chamber.

For example, not one of Chappelle-Nadal’s bills cleared committee in the year following her loss of committee assignments.

Missouri’s Constitution offers a way to avoid denying a legislative district of effective representation.

Article III section 18 provides that a chamber “may punish its members for disorderly conduct; and, with the concurrence of two-thirds of all members elect, may expel a member.”

A special election then could be called to finish the expelled member’s term.

An amendment to the House Ethics Committee report concluded there were grounds for expulsion of Price from the chamber. But it was dropped after failing to get a two-third’s vote of House members that would be required for an actual expulsion motion.

Another question involves action for conduct prior to joining the legislature, as is the case with Roeber.

If serious, but unproven, allegations from a few years earlier can justify rejecting the member from committee assignments, what about unproven charges going back decades earlier.

And, like Derges, there has been no court verdict of guilt involving allegations of criminal conduct.

Of course, if a charge is serious enough as to undermine effectiveness with legislative colleagues, why not just resign as some legislators have done when facing allegations of misconduct?

Former House Speaker John Diehl resigned in 2015 after it was revealed he’d sent sexually-charged text messages to a legislative intern. Two months later, then-Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, resigned under allegations that he sexually harassing interns.

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Phill Brooks
Phill Brooks

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.