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Capitol Perspectives: The Departure of Indicted Missouri Legislators

Phill Brooks
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UPI/Bill Greenblatt

UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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Rep. Steve Webb has added a new twist in the long history of how Missouri officials handle criminal charges.

The St. Louis County Democrat was charged with stealing contributions that had been given for an event by the legislature’s Black Caucus.

At first Webb, told the House Democratic leader he would resign. But the next day he announced he would not. A Democratic staffer said the turnaround was on the advice of his attorney.

Legislators charged with felony crimes almost always eventually resign. At times, resignation from public office seems a part of a plea bargain deal.

While some felony convictions can bar an offender from running for office, there is no provision for automatic removal of an elected official.

The Supreme Court made that clear in 1970 in a case involving Rep. Jet Banks.

Republicans charged the recently elected St. Louis City Democrat did not live in his district as required by the state Constitution. One of my first memories of the House chamber is of the signs proclaiming “I Live in My District” that Republicans put on their chamber desks in protest.

The Constitution provides that if a legislator moves out of his or her district, the office is vacated.

So Attorney General John Danforth went to the state Supreme Court to ask them to declare Bank’s seat vacant.

The court refused. They did not dispute that Banks failed to live in his district.

Rather, the court decided it did not have the power to remove a legislator from office. The House was the sole judge of the qualifications of its members, the judges ruled.

Since then, however, there has not been any time the legislature actually voted to boot out one of its own members. There was no formal legislative action against even those facing major felony charges that have included bribery, tax fraud, obstruction of justice, immigration fraud and illegal drug dealing.

Those convicted of felonies eventually have resigned, some before actual conviction, although for a few it’s been a painfully long process.

House Speaker Bob Griffin was among those who held on the longest. He was under a federal grand jury investigation for corruption in office. As stories of the investigation continued, pressure mounted for him to step down.

Griffin hung on, surviving even a challenge by some of his own party’s members. Finally, at start of the 1996 session, Griffin caved in and left office after 15 years as speaker, longer than anybody else in Missouri history.

The only state official I’ve covered who actually was kicked out of office was Secretary of State Judy Moriarty. It was a long and difficult process.

The governor called a special session of the legislature for impeachment by the House after she had been found guilty of back-dating her son’s candidacy for the legislature that had been filed after the deadline.

Even after impeachment, she briefly refused to comply with a constitutional requirement to leave her office while the impeachment case was tried before the Missouri Supreme Court, which subsequently ruled against her.

As for Banks, in the years following his state Supreme Court victory to stay in office, he rose in the legislature to become the Senate’s majority leader. He was the first black in Missouri history to hold one of the legislature’s most powerful positions.

Yet, Banks ended his government service by adding another page in the history of legislators who resign in response to criminal charges.

In late 1999, Banks resigned three months after pleading guilty to felony charges of cheating on his state income taxes.

Unlike Griffin, there was little pressure from his colleagues to quit. I sensed in the Senate a bit of sympathy for Banks because of his deteriorating health that had left the once-dominant legislator frail. He passed just a few years after his resignation.

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