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Missouri House speaker apologizes after report about intern

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri House Speaker John Diehl apologized Wednesday for his “poor judgment” following a newspaper’s report that he had exchanged sexually charged text messages with a college student who was serving as a Capitol intern.

While asking for forgiveness, Diehl also appealed to his colleagues for their continued support as Democrats launched an effort to try to remove the Republican from the chamber’s top position, which he was elected to in January.

“I take full responsibility for my actions and am truly sorry to those I let down,” Diehl said in a written statement, released after he had secluded himself in his Capitol office for about five hours. “I apologize for the poor judgment I displayed that put me and those closest to me in this situation. I also regret that the woman has been dragged into this situation.”

Earlier Wednesday, The Kansas City Star released a story accompanied by screenshots of apparent electronic messages between Diehl and a college student who was a Capitol intern. The messages included some sexually suggestive discussions and revealed what The Star described as a “flirty rapport” suggesting an intimate relationship.

The revelations about Diehl came as lawmakers — already tense and tired — are working toward a Friday deadline to pass legislation. Diehl skipped the final vote Wednesday on a highly contentious priority of GOP leaders, a measure that would make Missouri a right-to-work state, banning mandatory union fees.

Six of the House’s top Democrats released a statement Wednesday evening calling upon Diehl to “resign the post of House speaker without further delay.”

A large group of House Republicans met privately for an hour late Wednesday night.

“He’s not going to resign, and I support him 100 percent,” St. Louis Rep. Marsha Haefner said as she left the meeting.

Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, of Shell Knob, also voiced support for Diehl.

“He’s owned up to what’s happened and apologized and asked for forgiveness,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’m a forgiving person.”

Diehl’s statement did not specifically mention the text messages but expressed regret.

“The buck stops here. I ask for forgiveness. I will begin immediately working to restore the trust of those closest to me, and getting back to the important work that is required in the final days of session,” Diehl said.

The intern, who no longer works at the Capitol, declined to comment Wednesday and referred The Associated Press to attorney Phil Willoughby, a former Democratic state House member. Willoughby said he was asked by the intern and her family to handle media calls but was not representing her in any legal matters. He said she wouldn’t be making any statements.

She “is not interested in being at the center of any political debate concerning her internship or the workings of the state Capitol,” Willoughby said.

Following the Star’s report, Democratic state Rep. Gina Mitten announced on the House floor that she was seeking signatures on a petition calling for a vote to remove Diehl as speaker pending a full investigation into allegations of misconduct.

“I do not believe that our present speaker should be at the dais while we have this dark cloud over the Capitol,” said Mitten, of the St. Louis suburb of Richmond Heights.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon described Diehl’s conduct toward the intern as “clearly inappropriate and troubling.”

Diehl, 49, is an attorney who lives with his wife and three sons in the St. Louis suburb of Town and Country. He was first elected to the House in 2008 and now presides over one of the largest Republican legislative majorities in state history.

Richard Miller, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Missouri Southern State University, told The Star that the school pulled its four interns out of the state Capitol this spring after an unspecified incident, which he declined to describe more specifically.

“Usually, when something happens, it is a problem with the interns themselves, but that was not the situation this year,” Miller told the newspaper.

The Star reported that it obtained the electronic messages after the internship program ended. The newspaper reported that it contacted Diehl on April 24 seeking comment. The newspaper said Diehl backed out of an interview a week later and that his staff offered last Friday to deliver records for both his personal cellphone and another cellphone paid for by his law firm, Husch Blackwell.

It took the staff several days to produce those records, which showed just six text messages sent from the intern to Diehl. The Star said the records show only a log of conventional text messages. But the newspaper reported that the messages it obtained show conversations over Apple’s iMessage platform.

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Associated Press writers Marie French and Summer Ballentine contributed to this report.

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Follow David A. Lieb at: https://twitter.com/DavidALieb

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