Government & Politics

Politicians express shock at Missouri Speaker Diehl’s reported text conversations

Former Missouri House Speaker John Diehl
Former Missouri House Speaker John Diehl AP

Missouri House Speaker John Diehl’s apology for his relationship with a college intern isn’t likely to eliminate the furor surrounding the powerful politician, officials in both parties say.

Diehl, 49, issued a one-paragraph statement Wednesday about six hours after The Star published a series of suggestive texts between the House speaker and a former intern at the Capitol.

Diehl’s admission followed tense private meetings with fellow Republicans in his office at the Capitol. In those closed-door sessions, Diehl and his allies needed to find sufficient political support to survive the crisis ignited by the texts and The Star’s story about them.

Some Republicans were willing to offer that support.

“I read the statement, and I believe what he said,” Rep. Noel Shull of Kansas City said. “I don’t think it’s going to change anything.”

But Gov. Jay Nixon issued a statement, saying: “The conduct by the speaker towards a college intern as outlined by The Kansas City Star today is clearly inappropriate and troubling. Elected officials should be held to the highest standards of conduct by their colleagues and the citizens of this state, and this trust must be upheld.”

Democrats gave no indication of backing away from a petition effort, launched Wednesday, that seeks a vote on forcing Diehl from the speaker’s chair.

Rep. Gina Mitten, a St. Louis Democrat and chairwoman of the House minority caucus, said she was “shocked and appalled” at the texts, which revealed flirty exchanges between Diehl and the intern.

“It’s completely unacceptable for a man who is 49 years old to be engaging in that behavior with a young college freshman under any circumstances,” Mitten said. “I believe it’s immoral.”

Signatures from a majority of House members would force a vote on whether to retain Diehl as speaker. The Democratic leadership in the House, where that party is overwhelmingly outnumbered by Republicans, issued a statement late Wednesday calling for Diehl’s resignation.

Rep. John Rizzo, a Kansas City Democrat, said it will take time for the full impact of Diehl’s behavior, and any impact from his apology, to become clear.

“It’s something the (House) is going to have to take into consideration,” he said. But “I don’t think the statement calmed the issues on the Democratic side.”

Late in the evening, House Republicans met for more than an hour to discuss the revelations about Diehl. While caucus meetings typically take place in the Capitol basement, this one was in a hearing room attached to the Speaker’s office. That allowed Diehl to avoid the glaring eye of a growing contingent of media gathered outside his door.

Emerging after the meeting, Republican lawmakers quietly returned to their offices, muttering that Diehl was still speaker but offering no details about what he told them.

The revelations of Diehl’s text exchange with an intern rocked through the state within minutes of their publication by The Star. Lawmakers checked their cellphones in Jefferson City for the latest updates while online social media posts called the disclosures “disgusting” and more.

Former Missouri state Sen. John Lamping, a Republican from suburban St. Louis, said the texts suggest an unacceptable political environment in the state Capitol.

“This epitomizes the culture in Jeff City,” he said. “This is what happens. … This is a high-profile, apparently well-documented circumstance, but it is not an isolated incident. It is standard procedure. It’s remarkable.”

Other Republicans said they would stand by Diehl.

“I am not going to abandon my friend when some others want to kick him when he’s down,” Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said on St. Louis radio Wednesday afternoon. “He made a mistake.”

The scandal will likely cause serious damage to any aspirations Diehl might hold for higher office. In March, Diehl filed paperwork with the Missouri Ethics Commission indicating an interest in a statewide run in 2020.

He was first elected to the House in 2008 after a career in local government in the St. Louis area. Diehl is an attorney.

He is now serving his first term as House speaker.

Other Missouri House speakers have stumbled. Bob Griffin, a Democrat, served time in federal prison for crimes committed while he served as speaker in the 1990s. Rod Jetton, a Republican, was charged with assault shortly after leaving the speakership in 2009.

The potential scandal surrounding Diehl comes at a difficult time for the Missouri Republican Party. The party still faces an internal dispute over the suicide of Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich and his former spokesman, and any additional disruptions could further complicate the party’s statewide political efforts.

“This will be viewed as a potential issue in the 2016 election cycle,” said former legislator Bob Johnson of Lee’s Summit. He served as a Republican in the state Senate.

An email to the Missouri Republican Party was not answered.

Jefferson City correspondent Jason Hanock contributed to this report.