Missouri House speaker resigning, after coming under fire over sexting scandal

May 14, 2015
Originally published on May 14, 2015 4:31 pm

Updated 1:40 p.m. Thurs, May 14: Missouri House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, has announced he's resigning as speaker and as a member of the Missouri House.

His statement was issued less than 28 hours after news broke that he had been exchanging sexually salacious texts with a college-age female intern earlier this spring.

Diehl's statement does not say, however, when he will step down. The General Assembly's legislative session officially ends at 6 p.m. Friday. State Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, told reporters the House's GOP caucus will select a new speaker tonight.

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, jabbed at Diehl for the behavior that forced him out. “Missourians deserve elected officials who reflect their values and comport themselves to the highest standards of integrity," the governor said. "Rep. John Diehl’s resignation from the position of speaker and state representative is an appropriate and necessary step.  Our thoughts go out to the families who have been affected by the speaker’s conduct.  I look forward to working with the next speaker to restore the public trust and continue building a brighter future for our state.”

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., lauded Diehl's decision. “Speaker Diehl was an effective leader with significant accomplishments for our state. He made a mistake, and has apologized. He made the right decision today. I wish John the best as he and his family work through this.”

Diehl's statement says:

“In my time in the General Assembly, I’m proud of my long legislative legacy that was built upon being honest with members and doing what is in the best interest of our caucus and this body. I am proud to have led us to the largest Republican majority in state history, the first income tax cut in nearly one hundred years, and an override of the governor’s veto of Missouri’s congressional redistricting map.

I have acknowledged making a serious error in judgment by sending the text messages. It was wrong and I am truly sorry. Too often we hear leaders say they’re sorry but are unwilling to accept the consequences. I understand that, as a leader, I am responsible for my actions and I am willing to face the consequences.

I appreciate those who have stood beside me and the overwhelming number of caucus members that have offered continued support; but for the good of my party, the caucus, and this state, I’m not going to further jeopardize what we have accomplished this year and what can be accomplished in the future. Therefore, I will be resigning the position of Speaker of the House and the office of State Representative in a way that allows for an orderly transition.”

------

Updated May 14, 9:14 a.m. with correction about Diehl's responses - Late Wednesday night, House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, made an appearance outside his State Capitol office and briefly took questions from reporters regarding a Kansas City Star article that he exchanged sexually charged text messages with a former female intern.

"I've apologized for the poor decisions I've made," Diehl told reporters.  "I've apologized to my caucus and to people in my life that are important to me ... it was very regrettable, it was a stupid thing to do, and I'm sorry."

Diehl then took a few questions, but the Q & A with reporters didn't go very well.

First question, from Eli Rosenberg, KMBC-TV, Kansas City: "How long did this go on?" Diehl: "My statement speaks for itself."

Second question, from Virginia Young, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Did you make all those texts that were in the (KC Star), and why did you deny it for three weeks?" Diehl  "Virginia, my statement speaks for itself, okay?  I made a stupid mistake." Young: "No, it doesn't, really."

From there, Diehl's press availability deteriorated and he began walking away, to which Rosenberg said, "we're not going anywhere! We're staying out here!"

That and other questions prompted Diehl to leave, with reporters following him down a stairwell, through a basement hallway, and through the Capitol's underground parking garage. Diehl did answer a few "yes and no" questions during the walk, which included "no" when asked if he had had sexual relations with the intern.

This corrects earlier content in which Diehl was thought to have remained silent when asked the question again in the stairwell.

Diehl also answered "yes" when asked if he would remain in Jefferson City for the rest of the 2015 legislative session, which ends Friday at 6 p.m.

----------------

The original story - Missouri House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, is apologizing for his part in a sexting scandal that is roiling the state Capitol – and fueling calls for him to step down.

But so far, Diehl has not offered to do so. Late Wednesday, the House Democratic leadership declared he had no choice.

Diehl, 49, is in the spotlight over sexually suggestive texts that he apparently exchanged with a college-age intern earlier this spring. The Kansas City Star published the texts on Wednesday. The episode quickly went viral on social media and landed Diehl coverage in such national news outlets as Salon and Daily Kos.

After spending much of the day holed up in his office, Diehl – who is married -- issued a carefully worded statement:

“I take full responsibility for my actions and am truly sorry to those I let down. I apologize for the poor judgment I displayed that put me and those closest to me in this situation. I also regret that the woman has been dragged into this situation. The buck stops here. I ask for forgiveness. I will begin immediately working to restore the trust of those closest to me, and getting back to the important work that is required in the final days of session.”

Diehl did not address any of the specific texts, some of which implied a sexual relationship with the woman, a student at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.

The school abruptly ended its state Capitol internship program about a month ago. The Star quoted a school dean who blamed the intern-program shutdown on what the newspaper called “an unspecified incident.”

The woman denied to the Star that there was any sort of relationship with Diehl.

Republican lawmakers largely silent

While ensconced in his office, Diehl met privately with a parade of numerous Republican members of the House. His first meeting was with women Republicans, who left afterward with grim faces.

Most of the lawmakers left without speaking to the gaggle of reporters who were staked outside.

An exception was Rep. Eric Burlison, a Springfield Republican who sponsored the “right to work” bill that was being debated on the House floor when the Star first posted its story.

Burlison questioned the timing of the story’s publication, calling it “ironic.”

When asked why the timing of the Star’s story mattered if the allegations were true, Burlison replied: “Because the timing happened as we were getting ready to take the debate on a very important issue.”

As the night hit the Capitol, the 117-member Republican caucus piled into the House Lounge. Rep. Mark Parkinson, a St. Charles Republican who is in his last House term, said his caucus had never met there before.

When the caucus was over, Republican members generally declined to say what happened. Several indicated that Diehl was still speaker, but didn't elaborate. The gaggle of press continued to camp out outside his office, as Reps. Anne Zerr and Sue Allen delivering some snacks to Diehl’s office.

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, was sharply critical of Diehl. “The conduct by the speaker towards a college intern as outlined by the Kansas City Star today is clearly inappropriate and troubling," the governor said. "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.”

Meanwhile, state Rep. Gina Mitten, D-Richmond Heights, is circulating a petition that calls for Diehl to step down until an investigation is completed.  Under House rules, the petition would need to be signed by at least 82 House members.

“If the investigation comes back, if it’s determined that these allegations are unfounded – which I would certainly hope to be the case – I’d be the first person to vote in favor of reinstating the speaker,” she said in an interview afterward.

“This is not about partisan politics,” Mitten said. “This is about the integrity of our body, of our House, and of our rules.”

Mitten was among six members of the Democratic House leadership, led by Minority Leader Jake Hummel, who issued a joint statement late Wednesday calling for Diehl's departure "without further delay."

“Speaker Diehl owes the House of Representatives and the people of Missouri a complete and public explanation of his actions involving a young Capitol intern,'' the Democratic statement said, in part. "The longer the speaker refuses to honestly and openly address this situation, the more deafening his silence becomes. Empty platitudes and a vague apology for ‘poor judgment’ simply will not suffice."

Diehl long prominent in GOP politics

Diehl is a partner with one of the region’s most prominent law firms, Husch Blackwell, LLP.  He’s a native St. Louisan and attended DeSmet High School. He is married with three children.

From 2003-05, he served as a Town and Country alderman and was honored as the 2006 Business Person of the Year by the Town and Country / Frontenac Chamber of Commerce.

Although long active in Republican politics, Diehl became a public figure in 2005 when then-Gov. Matt Blunt appointed him chairman of the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners.

Diehl installed new Republican and Democratic election directors and oversaw the county’s conversion from punch-card ballots to electronic voting machines and paper-ballot scanners.

He was elected to the Missouri House in 2008, ironically succeeding fellow Republican Scott Muschany, who also was embroiled in a personal scandal.

Diehl quickly rose through the House ranks, in part because of his pro-business persona.  He has been particularly active in pressing for tax cuts and other policies he viewed as encouraging business and economic growth.

Copyright 2015 KWMU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.stlpublicradio.org.