KIRKWOOD, Mo. (AP) — Richard J. Rabbitt, who built a reputation as a reformer as the Missouri House speaker in the 1970s but whose political career ended in a corruption conviction, has died. He was 76.
Rabbitt, who lived in suburban St. Louis, died Friday of heart failure, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Rabbitt was elected as to the House in 1960 as a Democrat and served eight terms, including three terms as majority floor leader and two terms as speaker, from 1973 to 1976. He quit the House to run for lieutenant governor in 1976, narrowly losing.
He was indicted by a federal grand jury in 1977 on charges that he took kickbacks through his law firm in order to influence legislation. He maintained that he had accepted campaign contributions but had not taken bribes. He was convicted on two felony counts for taking money from lobbyists for auto dealers who sought to influence legislation, and attempting to extort law business from the Missouri Bus and Truck Association.
Rabbitt served 13 months in a federal prison in Kentucky and three months in a halfway house in St. Louis.
“He had a bump in the road, but no one’s perfect,” said former state Rep. Ken Rothman, the majority floor leader who succeeded Rabbitt as speaker. “He was an outstanding tactician. He was always very honest with me. If I asked him a question, I got a straight answer. … He was also tough. He could get in there and mix it up with people. And we maintained our friendship up to the end.”
After his release from prison, Rabbitt worked for the St. Louis Housing Authority, eventually becoming deputy executive director. He was dismissed from that job in 1992 for reasons that were not explained. He later worked in the law department of Unigroup Inc., the parent company of United Van Lines. He regained his law license and did pro bono work for those who could not afford an attorney.
He was considered a reformer as a lawmaker despite his legal troubles. He took steps to reorganize the state’s executive branch and supported legislation to limit campaign spending. He strengthened the Consumer Protection Committee, putting it in charge of bills affecting insurance, utilities, loan rates and other consumer issues.
A funeral Mass is at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Gerard Magella Catholic Church in Kirkwood. Survivors include his wife, three sons, three daughters, three grandchildren and one brother.
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