Missouri House Speaker Apologizes for Sexting Intern

by | May 14, 2015 AT 10:00 AM

By Virginia Young

House Speaker John Diehl issued a statement Wednesday apologizing and seeking forgiveness for exchanging sexually charged messages with a college freshman who worked as an intern in the state Capitol.

"I take full responsibility for my actions and am truly sorry to those I let down," said Diehl, R-Town and Country. "I apologize for the poor judgment I displayed that put me and those closest to me in this situation."

While not saying exactly what he was confessing to, the speaker said he regretted "that the woman has been dragged into this situation. The buck stops here. I ask for forgiveness."

The Kansas City Star has posted a story on its website that says it obtained text messages between Diehl and the intern. The newspaper said the "conversations unveil a flirty rapport and suggest an intimacy" between the two.

For example, after the intern sent him a picture of herself in a bikini, Diehl responded: "Damn girl..." and "Nice" and "I want to see more." At another point, the speaker texted, "God I want you right now," to which she replied, "I wish you could have me right now."

As speaker, Diehl occupies one of the most powerful jobs in state government.

The 19-year-old intern, who was not named in the Star's report, declined to comment to the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday. She referred questions to her attorney, Philip Willoughby, a former Democratic state representative from Kansas City. He could not immediately be reached.

Whether Diehl's apology would do anything to quiet the controversy remained to be seen.

Legislators responded with disgust and sadness to the report, with some saying Diehl should resign as speaker. Democrats began circulating a petition that would trigger a vote removing him while the situation was being investigated.

"To be honest, it's not surprising, and that's a really sad thing to say," said Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights. "As a mother of a college daughter, I'm appalled."

House Speaker Pro Tem Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, said the House's Republican leadership team planned to meet with Diehl.

"I've asked to see him," Hoskins said before Diehl released his statement. "I hope the allegations aren't true. I'm just trying to keep things together these last three days."

The Legislature faces a mandatory adjournment of 6 p.m. Friday.

The Post-Dispatch reported last month that Missouri Southern State University in Joplin had pulled its four interns -- two women and two men -- from the state Capitol program because of unspecified issues.

One of the Joplin interns worked in the office of Rep. Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho, who said Wednesday that he was surprised by the allegations.

"I haven't had time to think about it," Reiboldt said. "I guess I'll be the last to know if anything occurred. I go home at night."

Reiboldt said Diehl has "done a great job" as speaker and has supported agriculture bills that Reiboldt sponsored. "I respect the man," Reiboldt said.

Newman said "the courageous thing" for Diehl to do would be to resign. She also said that unfortunately, "it's pretty obvious that anybody that sends interns here is going to have to have much stronger oversight."

Rep. Gina Mitten, D-St. Louis, began circulating a petition to force a House vote to remove Diehl as speaker pending an investigation into the allegations.

"Parents out there would not feel comfortable with a college freshman daughter having texts with a 49-year-old member of House leadership," Mitten said. "I'm not comfortable with it."

Mitten said she did not know whether such an investigation should be done by the House, police, the attorney general or another entity.

"We'll see how that part of it shakes out," she said. "I would be comfortable with the House doing an investigation."

House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, said Missouri Southern State University also should be looking at the allegations against the speaker as a possible Title IX violation. Title IX is a federal law that bars discrimination in federally funded education programs on the basis of sex.

"If there is a Title IX (violation), certainly the school should be working on that already," Hummel said.

Cassie Mathes, director of university relations for the Joplin-based university, said Wednesday that the university would not comment on the reported text messages or whether they led officials to pull the interns.

"I've spoken with our president and other administrators and we don't have anything to add" to the school's initial statement, Mathes said.

In that statement, Crystal Lemmons, associate vice president for academic affairs, said: "The university was recently made aware of issues regarding our legislative internship program. We made a decision to reassign the interns to other responsibilities for the duration of the semester. They will receive full academic credit for their work. Due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), we cannot release additional information about these issues."

Republican legislators interviewed in the Capitol's hallways Wednesday were silent about what should happen next. Most said they were waiting for more information.

Diehl remained closeted in his office for much of the afternoon, with Republican legislators filtering in and out.

Republicans control the House 117-44, with one independent and one vacancy, so Mitten would need support from at least 38 Republicans to force a vote on a Diehl ouster.

Diehl, 49, is a real estate attorney serving his fourth term in the House. He grew up in Manchester and graduated from De Smet Jesuit High School.

He received a bachelor's degree in political science in 1987 from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a law degree in 1991 from St. Louis University. Diehl, who has three sons, lives with his wife in Town and Country.

Dave Robertson, political science professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said he wouldn't expect to see Diehl expelled from his speakership immediately over the controversy, though that could be the eventual outcome.

"It's a huge embarrassment and I won't be at all be surprised to see in the medium term that he decides that he may have to step down," Robertson said. "But I think in the short run, this is going to mostly be a partisan moment, where Democrats will rally in opposition to him and Republicans will rally in his support ... [by] raising doubts about the validity of the information."

One thing that might force an immediate exit, Robertson said, could be any information that there was an "abuse of authority" aspect to the relationship, something that hasn't so far been alleged.

St. Louis University political science professor Ken Warren agreed.

Warren worked for former U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who was House Minority Leader during the Monica Lewinsky scandal under President Bill Clinton. Warren said that whatever Republicans are saying publicly, there is likely some conflict behind the scenes.

"(Gephardt) told me one of the hardest things he ever had to do was walk over to the White House and show support" for Clinton during the scandal, said Warren.

Earlier this month, the House refused a Post-Dispatch "sunshine law" request for a listing of all the 2015 House interns, their schools and the offices where they work.

David Welch, counsel to the House, wrote that "internships are educational opportunities conducted in conjunction with colleges and universities" and thus, "public disclosure of such identifying information by the Missouri House would be prohibited by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act," a federal law.

Responding to a request for any sexual harassment complaints filed by interns, Welch said any such complaints would be closed records.

But he added: "Over the last five years, there have been no complaints or investigations relating to interns that have resulted in a finding of a violation of House sexual harassment policy."

Kevin McDermott of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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