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Missouri House denounces Rep. Price for alleged harassment

JEFFERSON CITY (AP) — The Missouri House has formally denounced Rep. Wiley Price, D-St. Louis, who is accused of having sex with an intern, threatening a staffer to keep quiet and then lying while under investigation. The legislators took the step –  for the first time in its history – on Wednesday.

The GOP-led House voted 140-3 to censure Price, a move unanimously recommended by the bipartisan House Ethics Committee. A move to expel Price from the House didn’t get the two-thirds majority support needed to pass.

Price fell under scrutiny after a staffer filed a report claiming that he told her he had sex with an intern after a party in January 2020 at a bar near the Capitol building in Jefferson City.

Price had attended mandatory House sexual harassment training roughly a week earlier. House policy forbids lawmakers from “romantic” relationships with interns, employees or anyone else they supervise.

Price denied to investigators having had sex with the intern. But he told House colleagues on Wednesday that he had been wrong to tell an investigator that he never even had the intern’s cellphone number. That was a lie.

During the investigation, Price also denied ever calling or texting with the intern but backtracked after being shown records of his calling her the night they allegedly had sex.

Price, who is Black, said he panicked and at first “denied everything.”

“I felt that I was under attack based on a falsehood,” Price said. “In the current political climate, politicians are never given the benefit of the doubt. Even more specific to me, when a white woman brings forth allegations of a Black men’s sexual improprieties, historically it doesn’t work in my favor.”

Price said he would accept his censure and sat silently at his desk, gazing downward, as colleagues voted on his punishment. He declined to comment to reporters afterward.

The Ethics Committee also found that Price retaliated against his former staffer for fulfilling her job as a mandatory reporter.

The committee found that Price threatened to fire her after he found out he was being investigated for misconduct. The staffer told investigators that Price had told her that “where I come from, people die” for behavior similar to the staffer’s.

Price did not speak Wednesday to allegations that he threatened his former staffer to keep her quiet.

Price said his former staffer had made up the claims against him. He said the staffer was retaliating against him for having told her the week before that he planned to replace her.

Republicans led the effort to go a step further and kick Price out of the House.

Republican Rep. Sara Walsh described being harassed as a young factory worker and discovering a sex toy on her desk. She called on House members to expel Price and “stand up for these young people.”

“You matter,” she said, speaking directly to interns and other young people.

Democrats argued that expulsion would be too harsh, and 18 Republicans joined them in opposing Price’s ouster.

“It is unpleasant that he must remain,” said Democratic Rep. Mark Ellebracht, who serves on the Ethics Committee. “But it is not our right as individual members to deprive the people of the 84th House District of their voice.”

Rep. Barbara Phifer was the only Democrat to vote to expel Price, and many Republicans criticized Democrats for not supporting stronger action against him.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Ethics Committee Chairman Rep. Travis Fitzwater, a Republican,  said. “A lack of action is screaming in this instance.”

Rep. Jered Taylor, a Republican who sponsored the proposal to expel Price, called a censure a “slap on the wrist.”

Although he continues to serve, Price has been largely stripped of whatever power he had as a member of the House’s Democratic superminority party. He can still vote, but he was kicked off committees and banned from serving in leadership. He is being asked to pay almost $22,500 in fines to make up for the taxpayer-funded expense of investigating him.

The Missouri House strengthened its policies against sexual harassment after then-House Speaker John Diehl, a Republican, resigned in 2015 while acknowledging he had exchanged sexually charged text messages with a House intern.

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