Barbara Shelly

John Diehl scandal reflects a culture of entitlement in Missouri government

The Missouri legislature will draw the curtain Friday on a session that began with an embarrassment, witnessed a tragedy and concluded with a scandal. If the events of 2015 don’t prompt soul-searching in Missouri government, then nothing will.
The Missouri legislature will draw the curtain Friday on a session that began with an embarrassment, witnessed a tragedy and concluded with a scandal. If the events of 2015 don’t prompt soul-searching in Missouri government, then nothing will.

The Missouri General Assembly usually concludes its legislative sessions with a swagger.

Not this year.

When the session ends at 6 p.m. Friday — a deadline set by law — the legislature will draw the curtain on a session that began with an embarrassment, witnessed a tragedy, and concluded with a scandal.

If the events of 2015 don’t prompt soul-searching in Missouri government, then nothing will.

Instead of passing last-minute legislation on Thursday, Republicans in the House were reeling over the abrupt resignation of their leader, Speaker John Diehl. The Star broke a story the day before about a long series of racy text messages that Diehl, who is 49 and married, exchanged with a 19-year-old college intern.

The Senate was also at a standstill. Democrats had made good on their promise to talk any bill to death after Republicans breached protocol to force a vote on an anti-union “right to work” law. The determination of the oversized GOP majority to ram an ideological agenda through the legislature has finally backfired, and badly.

The session began with members of a House committee feasting on steak and booze at the Jefferson City Country Club, with lobbyists from the telecommunications industry picking up the tab and TV crews and tweeters documented every embarrassing detail.

“Steakgate,” as it came to be called, shined a harsh light on Missouri’s flimsy excuse for ethics laws, which permit unlimited gifts from lobbyists and uncapped campaign contributions. People inside and outside of the Capitol began talking about reform, starting with a cap on lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers.

A full session later, it’s clear the push will have to come from outside. Leaders in the House and Senate haven’t been able to agree on something as simple as a $25 cap on lobbyist-supplied meals, trips and tickets.

On Feb. 26, Missouri government was rocked by the suicide of state auditor Tom Schweich, who was running for the Republican nomination for governor. A month later, Schweich’s media director, Spence Jackson, also took his own life.

Schweich had been the target of some rough campaign tactics within his own party. His death raised issues about political bullying and the high stakes of politics in a state where donors pour millions of dollars into campaigns.

The two suicides knocked lawmakers off balance, but after a time they got back to business. They passed some bills and shelved others. In a new and disturbing wrinkle, some committee chairpersons began barring media and activist groups from filming public meetings.

The freebies never stopped flowing.

Jefferson City, perhaps more than some other state capitals, is an insular place. Lawmakers who take office with the best of intentions quickly get taken up with the perks and the power plays. What’s unseemly to everyone else is ordinary to them.

The lawmakers involved in the steak dinner fiasco were genuinely surprised when reporters showed up to watch them dine on a meal provided by the industry they’re supposed to be regulating. You mean we’re not supposed to do that?

I have no idea why Diehl would throw away years of work to reach the House speaker’s office to conduct a dalliance with a woman 30 years younger than himself, but I think the free-wheeling atmosphere of the Capitol has something to do with it. I’m an officeholder. Heck, I’m a really important officeholder. Anything goes.

The 2015 legislative session will end today with a record of shocking events and a lot of unfinished business.

Missouri government has to change. It needs to be less about money-grubbing and power and more about public service.

Change won’t come from within. The citizens of Missouri will have to do it with a ballot initiative.

Time to get started.

To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to bshelly@kcstar.com. Twitter: @bshelly.

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