Government & Politics

Ex-Missouri House speaker who left amid sex scandal is making a comeback. Too soon?

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

Vice President Mike Pence was on his way to Missouri, and Gov. Mike Parson made the trek to St. Louis to greet him in person.

But before he could set off for the airport to join the vice president’s motorcade, Parson’s first order of business that July morning was a meeting scheduled at his hotel with an old colleague.

Former Missouri House Speaker John Diehl, who had set up the meeting to discuss his new business venture.

It’s been more than three years since Diehl resigned from the legislature following the revelation he’d been sending sexually charged text messages to a 19-year-old House intern.

Since leaving office, he’s kept a low profile.

That’s starting to change.

Diehl is part owner of a company hoping to mine cobalt at a site in southeast Missouri, and in recent months he’s met one-on-one with the governor, led Congressman Jason Smith on a public tour of the site, briefed local elected officials on the company’s plans and has become a defacto spokesman for the company with area media.

Along the way, relationships he built during his years in House leadership, including some who are also close with the governor, have helped him ease back into the public sphere.

But in an era when more and more powerful men are being exposed for inappropriate, and often illegal, treatment of women, his return raises all-too-familiar questions about when and if the perpetrators of these acts should expect to be welcomed back to the fold.

“It’s not about time, it’s about accountability and making amends,” said state Rep. Gina Mitten, a St. Louis County Democrat who led a push to collect enough signatures to remove Diehl as speaker in 2015.

“We’re all human. We all make mistakes,” she said. “But has he made any changes to the way he behaved? Is the John Diehl of 2018 the same as the John Diehl of 2015?”

State Rep. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat whose first term in the legislature overlapped with Diehl’s resignation, said she doesn’t want to just “punish someone and send them out on an iceberg.”

Yet she wonders if Diehl has really changed since he left the legislature.

“He resigned pretty begrudgingly,” she said, “and only after he felt pressure to do so as opposed to recognizing he did something wrong and walking away.”

For his part, Diehl says his company hopes to make a much needed investment in an economically depressed part of the state.

His new public persona is about trying to educate business and community leaders about an important project, he said in an email to The Star. He said it’s hard to imagine anyone would have heartburn about that “other than the most cynical or partisan.”

Resignation

Over the course of his nearly eight years in the House, Diehl built a reputation as a hard-charging, deal-making politician who quickly rose up the ranks to arguably the most powerful job in the Statehouse.

He also cultivated relationships with several people who are now in the governor’s inner circle, among them Steve Tilley, another former House speaker who is a lobbyist and longtime friend and adviser of the governor; Aaron Willard, a former House staffer who is now the governor’s chief of staff and who helped him arrange his July meeting with the governor; and Robert Knodell, a former political adviser for Diehl who now serves as Parson’s deputy chief of staff.

His political career began unraveling just a few weeks before the end of the 2015 legislative session, when The Star acquired text messages Diehl, then 49, had been exchanging with a 19-year-old freshman from Missouri Southern State University in Joplin who was interning in the House.

Diehl’s political team worked to shoot down and delay the story’s publication, and he repeatedly denied everything. But when The Star published its story revealing the texts, Diehl finally admitted the texts were real but vowed to remain in office.

The next day, facing a behind-the-scenes revolt among members of his own party, Diehl announced he would resign.

Soon after his resignation it was revealed he’d also been cheating on his wife with a former staffer for then-Gov. Jay Nixon.

Diehl’s indiscretions, along with the later resignation of a state senator accused of sexually harassing his interns, moved lawmakers to rework the Capitol intern program and strengthen sexual harassment policies.

The former speaker, while often rumored to be angling behind the scenes on certain issues, remained out of the public spotlight.

Inspired by the Missouri statehouse intern scandals of 2015, a coalition of groups has launched a website aimed at helping Missouri interns respond to sexual harassment.

Missouri Cobalt LLC

Earlier this year, Diehl filed paperwork with the state to create Missouri Cobalt LLC.

The company purchased 1,800 acres near Fredericktown, Mo., that was part of the Madison County Mines federal Superfund site overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The new owners say there could be as much as 35 million pounds of recoverable cobalt on the site, likely making it the largest such reserve in North America. Cobalt is a key ingredient in smartphones and electric car batteries.

Diehl noted in an email to The Star that much of the world’s supply is sourced in China and mines in the Congo, some of which are well known for utilizing child labor with little regard for the environment.

The mine, Diehl said, will “provide over $200 million in new construction and development utilizing 100 percent private financing, will employ hundreds of workers in an economically distressed area and will clean up a Superfund site (with private funds) that has languished for decades.”

He would not grant an interview for this article, insisting on only answering questions via email.

Diehl, who is not a registered lobbyist, said his meeting with Parson in July was just to update the governor on the project. The Star learned of the meeting when the governor’s office turned over Parson’s daily calendar as part of a records request under Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

Asked if there were any concerns about meeting with Diehl, given his past, the governor’s office responded by focusing on the potential economic impact of the cobalt mine in southeast Missouri.

Diehl said he didn’t ask for anything at the meeting with Parson, and there are no plans to request any funds or assistance from the state.

The EPA says Missouri Cobalt LLC still needs to get numerous permits from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The department’s spokeswoman says it has not yet received a mining permit application from the company.

Controversial contract

Diehl may have worked to keep a low profile in the years since his resignation, but he hasn’t completely avoided controversy.

He also serves as vice president and general counsel of a company called Environmental Operations Inc., a St. Louis firm that specializes in environmental remediation projects.

Last year the company won a contract in Independence to tear down a decommissioned coal-fired power plant for the city-owned utility.

Critics immediately noted that Environmental Operations was awarded the contract despite its bid being twice as high as what a competitor submitted. And although the company is active in brownfield remediation projects around Missouri, city records show that it had no previous experience in fixing up power plant sites.

The other bidder, Commercial Liability Partners, held itself out as an expert in power plant redevelopment. Its work history included decommissioning and demolishing the American Electric Power Muskingum River Plant in Waterford, Ohio. That project included five generating units with a combined generating capacity of 1,425 megawatts, compared to Missouri City’s 38 megawatts.

The Independence City Council approved Environment Operations’ $9.75 million bid over a $4.45 million bid from Commercial Liability Partners.

The contract award was met by strenuous opposition by two council members. It was also opposed by the Public Utility Advisory Board, a citizen-led committee that makes recommendations about Independence Power & Light, which had difficulty understanding why Environmental Operations was worth millions in extra expense.

“It’s just troubling that we’re proposing having the ratepayers pay an extra $4 million with no justification for it,” said advisory board member Garland Land at a meeting in June 2017. “At least no justification has been provided to us. Maybe there’s something deep in the bear holes somewhere, but I haven’t heard why this is a good deal for the ratepayers.”

While Environmental Operations chief executive Stacy Hastie appeared before the Independence City Council when discussing his firm’s bid, Diehl’s signatures appear on documents related to the project. Hastie is also co-chairman of Missouri Cobalt LLC.

Diehl did not respond to an emailed question about the contract.

Independence Power & Light’s lobbyist since 2016 has been Steve Tilley, the former speaker who is a longtime adviser to the governor and friend of Diehl’s.

Ron Froh, chief executive of Commercial Liability Partners, said he was “a little miffed” that his firm did not get the same opportunities in bidding that Environmental Operations received. He said he considered protesting the bid award, but ultimately concluded the expense and public scrutiny wasn’t worth the effort.

“We felt it was futile,” Froh said.

The contract award came at an odd time for Independence Power & Light. In July 2017, an Ohio firm published a management audit that described the utility as “at a crossroad.” The utility had unstable finances and was faced with making expensive decisions to generate power.

Karen DeLuccie, an Independence council member who voted against the Environmental Operations award, said she still doesn’t understand the decision.

“It’s inexplicable to me, there’s been no justification for it,” she said.

She wasn’t aware until a Star reporter told her that Diehl worked for Environmental Operations.

“John Diehl works for Environmental Operations? Seriously?” she said. “Oh my God.”

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