Missouri House votes to censure, but not expel, Democrat accused of sex with intern

Rudi Keller Missouri Independent
Rep. Wiley Price, D-St. Louis, discusses the effort to censure him during House debate on Jan. 13, 2021 (Photo by Ben Peters/Missouri House Communications).

JEFFERSON CITY – After failing to muster the two-thirds majority needed to expel state Rep. Wiley Price, the Missouri House on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to censure him for lying about an alleged sexual encounter with an intern and attempting to cover it up by threatening a House employee.

After a debate that took about two hours, the House voted 140-3, with eight members voting ‘present,’ to approve a House Ethics Committee report recommending punishments that include excluding Price from committee assignments and reimbursing the House for the $22,492 cost of the investigation.

All eight members who voted present are Democrats. The no votes were from state Reps. Marlon Anderson, D-St. Louis, Michael Johnson, D-Kansas City, and Tony Lovasco, R-O’Fallon. 

Price, D-St. Louis, declined to speak to reporters after the vote, but said on the House floor that he had not engaged in sex with the intern but had made mistakes dealing with the investigation.

He admitted lying to a House investigator by saying he had never sent or received texts from the intern. But he said he told the truth in closed-door testimony to the Ethics Committee and that the report before the House had omissions and misrepresentations.

Price, who is Black, also said racial attitudes worked against him as he sought to defend himself.

“In the current political climate, politicians are never given the benefit of the doubt,” Price said. “Even more specific to me, when a white woman brings forth accusations of a black man’s sexual impropriety, historically it doesn’t work in our favor.”

The events covered by the committee’s investigation occurred in late January 2020. The committee’s report was issued in mid-December and the Wednesday debate was the first time the House had a chance to address it.

State Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, sponsored the unsuccessful attempt to increase the punishment to expulsion. His amendment passed 91-57, with one Democrat, state Rep. Barbara Phifer, D-St. Louis, voting for it and 16 Republicans opposed.

“We are sending a loud and resounding message that nothing has changed in this body,” if Price was allowed to remain in office, Taylor said.

State Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, opposed expulsion and said changing the punishment was substituting the House’s judgment for that of the Ethics Committee that had heard the testimony.

“What we are supposed to go by is the report that they gave us,” Meredith said.

Only one member of the House has ever been expelled, in 1865. The charge at that time was disloyalty to the Union.

Because expulsion requires 109 votes, the House reversed itself on the amendment so the report would pass imposing censure.

The committee report details the events that led to the investigation and Price’s attempts to cover-up his relationship with the intern. 

It began when Price told his legislative assistant, listed as Witness 1 in the report, that he had sexual relations with the intern after he, the legislative assistant and the intern attended a party on Jan. 22, 2020. The assistant told Price that it violated House rules and would be reported.

Under questioning from the investigator, the intern denied a sexual relationship, denied speaking on the phone with or texting Price and denied having his cell number. The intern declined to give testimony to the Ethics Committee.

Price made the same denials, and, according to the report, repeated them again four times during committee testimony before he was shown phone records obtained via subpoena. Those records showed seven phone calls and 26 text messages over a four-day period in late January, including one phone call that lasted 42 minutes.

In his testimony about threats to fire the legislative assistant, Price said he gave notice to her a week before she made the report that she would be out of a job in 30 days. Price “claimed Witness 1 fabricated the story of Respondent and the intern as retaliation,” the report states.

On the House floor Wednesday, Price again said that he had told the legislative assistant he would be replacing her prior to her making the allegations.

The night the alleged sexual encounter took place, he told the House, was the assistant’s birthday and the party was to celebrate. The intern, who did not work for Price, was invited, he said.

The legislative assistant became drunk and he asked the intern to drive her home. The calls from the intern that night were about the assistant’s refusal to allow the intern to drive her, he said.

“The story this woman is telling, it didn’t come under much scrutiny,” Price said.

The process used for the investigation was adopted by the House in the fall of 2015 in response to the scandal that forced House Speaker John Diehl to resign two days before the end of the 2015 legislative session. Diehl was found to have sent sexually-suggestive texts to an intern, including messages sent while he was overseas representing the state on a trade mission.

State Rep. J. Eggleston, a Maysville Republican and former chairman of the Ethics Committee, laid out the case against Price and urged members to approve the report and punishment.

“With our position comes the expectation that we will behave in a manner that shows that we are some of the finest people our districts have to offer and we exhibit the character expected of a state representative,” he said, “and the rep of the 84th has failed at that charge, and deserves to be held accountable.”

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