Democratic state Rep. Wiley Price is threatening to sue the Missouri House over a $22,000 penalty incurred as part of his censure last year for allegedly lying about a sexual encounter with an intern and retaliating against the House employee who reported it.
In a Feb. 15 letter to the House clerk — obtained by The Independent as part of a request under Missouri’s Sunshine Law — an attorney retained by Price said he was planning to file a lawsuit challenging the $22,492 penalty and the legality of $500 being deducted out of his paychecks to cover the cost.
Richard Callahan, a former judge and U.S. attorney handling Price’s case, contends the House changed its rules to retroactively allow it to fine Price as part of his censure.
“In this instance, while the Missouri Constitution explicitly gives the House the authority to make its own rules, that doesn’t necessarily mean the House then has the authority to break its own rules,” Callahan, who is handling the case pro bono, said in an email to The Independent.
In his letter to the House clerk, Callahan said he was reaching out “before filing our lawsuit to explore if there is any appetite on the part of the House to attempt to settle this matter without litigation.” In a followup email to House General Counsel Bryan Scheiderer, Callahan said the matter could be settled by having “the deductions stopped and Rep. Price foregoing his claim to a return of the money already collected.”
Scheiderer responded to Callahan’s inquiry by sharing documents he said support the House’s authority to withhold pay from a lawmaker, as well as audio of Price saying he would “accept the censure” during the January 2021 House debate on the issue.
He later told Callahan the payroll deduction would stop once Price paid the balance due.
The deputy commissioner of the Office of Administration, the agency that handles payroll for state government, wrote to Callahan denying that it acted improperly by withholding money from Price’s check.
No lawsuit has been filed. Callahan says a final decision on whether to file will not be made until after the legislative session, which ends May 13.
In January 2020, the House received a report alleging Price violated a rule prohibiting lawmakers from sexual or romantic relationships with employees or interns.
The complaint was referred to the House Ethics Committee to investigate.
In testimony to the committee, Price’s legislative assistant claimed he admitted to her that he had sex with an intern. She alleged that after she informed Price she was required under House rules to report the incident, he threatened to fire her in an attempt to keep her quiet.
Both Price and the intern deny the sexual encounter took place. Price claims he had already told the legislative assistant he would be replacing her prior to her making the allegations. He admitted lying to a House investigator, but said he told the truth in closed-door testimony to the ethics committee.
In December 2020, the ethics committee — made up of five Republicans and five Democrats — completed its inquiry and voted unanimously to recommend censuring Price. It released a report that concluded he had committed perjury in his testimony, obstructed the legislative investigation and “compromised the ability of the House to provide a respectful, professional work environment.”
The legislature reconvened the next month, and the House voted 140-3 to censure him. The vote removed him from all committee assignments and required him to reimburse the state for the cost of the investigation, which included hiring an outside law firm to conduct the inquiry.
Missouri House Democrats voted to kick Price out of their caucus a week later.
According to a draft of Price’s potential lawsuit, the House began deducting $500 from his bi-monthly paychecks starting February 2021. Over the course of the next year, Price lost $12,000 in salary, the lawsuit states.
Lawmakers earn roughly $36,000 per year.
Price’s legislative salary is “his sole source of income,” the draft of the lawsuit states, and he is “dependent on his salary for the daily living essentials.”
Price’s lawsuit argues that when the ethics committee report recommended requiring him to pay the cost of its investigation, “no rule allowed for such punishment.”
The punishments allowed under the rules at the time, Callahan argues in the lawsuit, were a letter of reproval, a reprimand, a censure or expulsion.
It was only after the House voted to censure Price, Callahan says, that the rules were amended to include an option that a legislator could be fined or punished by a dollar amount equal to the cost of an ethics investigation.
“Anybody knows there is something inherently unfair about changing the rules in the middle, or worse, at the end of a contest,” Callahan said in an email to The Independent. “But that is exactly what happened here.”
In a February email to Callahan, Scheiderer shared older House journals that reference fines and penalties, as well as a Congressional research brief pertaining to legislative discipline that includes “fine or monetary restitution.”
Caroline Coulter, deputy commissioner and general counsel for the Office of Administration, said in a March 30 letter to Callahan that the Missouri General Assembly has the constitutional authority “to determine the rules of its own proceedings.
“Pursuant to one of those rules,” Coulter wrote, “the House of Representatives directed (the Office of Administration) to begin paying one of its members $500 less than other members each pay period.”
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said she was not aware of Price’s threat of a lawsuit.
She said she supported the ethics committee’s recommendations to censure Price and require him to repay the costs of the investigation, as well as her party’s decision to expel him from the caucus.
Price is up for re-election this year, where he faces a challenger in the Democratic primary but no Republican opponent in the fall.
If he is re-elected, Quade said the party’s bylaws state he will automatically be allowed back in the caucus. At that point, if a member of the Democratic House delegation raises the issue, a vote could be held on whether to allow him to remain.
That could create a difficult situation for House Democrats, who faced criticism from some legislative staff after the vote to censure Price.
Republicans wanted Price to be expelled, but Democrats argued he shouldn’t be punished beyond the ethics committee’s recommendation. Democratic staffers accused their party’s leaders of doing more to protect a fellow lawmaker than employees.
Callahan said Price is not “complaining about any of the punishments imposed that were part of the House rules at the time of the complaint and investigation.”
If a lawsuit is ultimately filed, it will challenge a rule Price believes was enacted after the complaint and applied retroactively to his case.
“There is no intent to denigrate the important and challenging work that comes before the House Ethics Committee,” Callahan said. “Rather, if there is a lawsuit, the principle at stake is whether the legislative branch, like the other two branches of government, is bound by its own rules, or does ‘might’ (the majority) make right.
“The answer should be of interest to every House member.”
This article by Jason Hancock is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.