JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – The Missouri House for the first time in history on Wednesday formally denounced a lawmaker accused of having sex with an intern, threatening a staffer to keep quiet and then lying while under investigation.
The GOP-led House voted 140-3 to censure Democratic Rep. Wiley Price, of St. Louis, as unanimously recommended by the bipartisan House Ethics Committee. A move to expel Price from the House didn’t get the two-thirds majority support needed to pass.
Price fell under scrutiny after a staffer filed a report claiming that he told her he had sex with an intern after a January 2020 party at a bar near the Capitol building in Jefferson City.
Price attended mandatory House sexual harassment training roughly a week earlier. House policy forbids lawmakers from “romantic” relationships with interns, employees or anyone else they supervise.
Price denied having sex with the intern to investigators. But he told House colleagues on Wednesday that he was wrong to tell an investigator that he never even had the intern’s cell phone number. That was a lie.
During the investigation, Price also denied ever calling or texting with the intern but backtracked after being shown records of him calling her the night they allegedly had sex.
Price, who is Black, said he panicked and at first “denied everything.”
“I felt that I was under attack based on a falsehood,” Price said. “In the current political climate, politicians are never given the benefit of the doubt. Even more specific to me, when a white woman brings forth allegations of a Black men’s sexual improprieties, historically it doesn’t work in my favor.”
Price said he would accept his censure and sat silently at his desk, gazing downward, as colleagues voted on his punishment. He declined to comment to reporters afterward.
The Ethics Committee also found that Price retaliated against his former staffer for fulfilling her job as a mandatory reporter.
The committee found that Price threatened to fire her after he found out he was being investigated for misconduct. The staffer told investigators that Price told her “where I come from, people die” for behavior similar to the staffer’s.
Price on Wednesday did not speak to allegations that he threatened his former staffer to keep her quiet.
Price said his former staffer made up the claims against him. He said the staffer was retaliating against him for telling her the week before that he planned to replace her.
Republicans led the effort to go a step further and kick Price out of the House.
Republican Rep. Sara Walsh described being harassed as a young factory worker and discovering a sex toy on her desk. She called on House members to expel Price and “stand up for these young people.”
“You matter,” she said, speaking directly to interns and other young people.
Democrats argued that expulsion would be too harsh, and 18 Republicans joined them in opposing Price’s ouster.
“It is unpleasant that he must remain,” said Democratic Rep. Mark Ellebracht, who serves on the Ethics Committee. “But it is not our right as individual members to deprive the people of the 84th House District of their voice.”
Rep. Barbara Phifer was the only Democrat to vote to expel Price, and many Republicans criticized Democrats for not supporting stronger action against him.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Republican Ethics Committee Chairman Rep. Travis Fitzwater said. “A lack of action is screaming in this instance.”
Republican Rep. Jered Taylor, who sponsored the proposal to expel Price, called a censure a “slap on the wrist.”
Although he continues to serve, Price has been largely stripped of whatever power he had as a member of the House’s Democratic superminority party. He can still vote, but he was kicked off committees and banned from serving in leadership. He is being asked to pay almost $22,500 in fines to make up for the taxpayer-funded expense of investigating him.
The Missouri House strengthened its policies against sexual harassment after former Republican House Speaker John Diehl in 2015 resigned while acknowledging he had exchanged sexually charged text messages with a House intern.
Ballentine reported from Columbia, Missouri.
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