JEFFERSON CITY — As a lawmaker, former Missouri Speaker of the House Rod Jetton converted a hidden vault into a secret office – in part to avoid the prying eyes of pesky state Capitol reporters. Now he relies on such once-reviled carriers of notepads, cameras and tape recorders to ferret out the truth from the hallowed building's darkened corridors.
The irony isn't lost on Jetton, 45, who in January made a prominent return to public life in Jefferson City as president of The Missouri Times. The new weekly newspaper and its website chronicle state government, politics and the General Assembly for an audience of lawmakers, lobbyists, legislative staffers and insatiable political junkies.
“I really didn't like to talk to the press,” Jetton acknowledged. “I'm learning a whole new side of things. It's odd and weird for me sometimes.”
“You realize that sometime politicians don't want to answer the question, they want to dodge it,” he added. “I just want to say, `Look man, just answer the question!“’
The ex-Marine from Marble Hill rose from 30-year-old Bollinger County commissioner to top powerbroker in under a decade. Elected to the House of Representatives in 2000, he helped Missouri Republicans cement control of the Legislature as speaker from 2005 to 2009.
But after he was investigated by a federal grand jury probing bribery claims in 2010, and charged with assault for hitting and choking a woman during rough sex at her Sikeston home, his downfall was as swift as his ascent.
Forced from office by term limits, he pleaded guilty in 2011 to a reduced misdemeanor assault charge and was sentenced to probation. The federal inquiry into Jetton's handling of a 2005 bill regulating sexually oriented businesses fizzled when the panel didn't issue an indictment, and the statute of limitations to do so lapsed.
The transition from politics to media isn't as unusual as it appears, said Jetton and publisher Scott Faughn, a former Jetton campaign manager who four years ago started the SEMO Times, a similar weekly paper in Poplar Bluff.
They point toward Washington, where the revolving door has produced a former Clinton White House aide, George Stephanopoulos, as an ABC News anchor and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a Fox News commentator.
The D.C. area is also where Jetton and Faughn's nascent publishing business received inspiration from a visit to Politico, the successful political news website started by former Washington Post journalists. Faughn called the Politico executives he met with “very gracious.”
Jetton said he wants Faughn and the Times' two young reporters to write for “the people in the building” – a phrase heard more than once at the newspaper's recent coming-out party at Madison's Cafe. Each issue profiles a lobbyist or trade association, as well as one of the legions of usually anonymous staffers.
There are opinion columns by a former Democratic governor (Bob Holden) and the 2012 GOP gubernatorial nominee (Dave Spence); text-heavy interviews with political bigwigs such as state auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican, and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay; and dispatches on the internecine battles that Jetton said can influence policy even more than the Democrat- Republican divide.
While its founders come from partisan backgrounds, both said they are committed to providing unbiased news coverage and don't just want to write for the party faithful.
“If there is a bias in the story, it's because we failed in our reporting,” Faughn said. Avoiding bias “is the number one thing we think about.”
Faughn, a former Poplar Bluff mayor and Chamber of Commerce executive, has had his own legal troubles. He was convicted in 2007 on three felony counts after he was accused of forging checks on an account for a highway expansion in southeast Missouri. In 2010, he was arrested twice in the same day for driving on a suspended license.
Jetton remains open about his fall from grace – and the excessive pride and hubris he said derailed both his career and personal life.
The son of a Baptist minister, he divorced his wife of 21 years in 2009 but has since remarried. He now lives in Branson, keeps an apartment in Jefferson City and continues to work as marketing director for a Poplar Bluff engineering firm. The firm's owner, Stan Schultz, holds a 10 percent interest in The Missouri Times, with Jetton the majority owner at 60 percent and Faughn owning a 30 percent share.
“You can't live a double life,” said Jetton, the father of three grown children. “You can't act one way as a politician and another way in private. I let politics and power influence me, and change me from who I really was. Unfortunately, it took some trouble, some problems, to get me to realize that.”
Jetton works primarily on the business side, leaving the news coverage to Faughn and the reporters. But his co-workers know that Jetton can help with both access and insight that others simply don't offer.
“Rod brings a wealth of connections, and a wealth of judgment,” Faughn said. “And he understands why things happen.”
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier