Government & Politics

Steve Kraske: John Diehl is yet another Missouri House speaker to run into legal and ethical issues

By STEVE KRASKE

skraske@kcstar.com

May 15, 2015 3:26 PM

What is it about serving as speaker of the Missouri House that gets so many talented men in trouble?

John Diehl is hardly the first. A federal grand jury indicted Richard Rabbitt for taking kickbacks. Bob Griffin went to prison for corruption. Rod Jetton testified before a federal grand jury on bribery, although he was never indicted.

Steve Tilley was never charged with anything, but he found a way to lawfully pocket campaign funds that remains ethically dubious.

And now we’ve got Diehl, who disgraced himself by sexting with an intern.

All together, that’s five of the last 12 speakers, a batting average that would put any major leaguer into the Hall of Fame.

After Jetton, 47, left the speaker’s office in 2009, he faced felony charges connected to rough sex with a woman in Sikeston, Mo. He also faced a monthslong federal investigation into the way he handled an adult entertainment bill.

The turmoil put an end to any future political aspirations and forced him to shutter his consulting firm.

Jetton explained the sordid history of the speaker’s office with a single phrase — too much power.

The office has so much of it that it’s tough to keep your head straight, Jetton said.

The speaker is the state’s second most powerful official. He assigns lawmakers to committees. He meets with the governor and the Senate president. But the key to his power is counterintuitive. It’s not the speaker’s ability to pass bills that counts. It’s the ability to kill them.

The speaker can refer a bill to an unfriendly committee, where it’s likely to die. That’s the speaker’s chokehold over a bill.

If the bill survives, the speaker can weigh in again by deciding whether to place it on the House calendar for the full chamber’s consideration. That’s a second checkpoint.

The governor deals with just the bills the legislature passes. Not so with the speaker, who deals with all of them.

All that authority can corrupt, Jetton said. It did him.

“Power,” he said, “always reveals,” and what it revealed about Jetton was that all the adulation, all those people in the Capitol telling him day after day how smart he was, how strategic he was and how he was destined for political greatness got to him after a while. He began to believe it.

Jetton isn’t sure what can be done about it, short of ensuring that each speaker has someone in his life who can set him in his place. That, he said, is critical.

Otherwise, he said, “you start believing that you’re invincible.”

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to skraske@kcstar.com.

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