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Hearing Could Open Democratic Caucus

November 09, 1995

By: ELISA CROUCH

State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Just four hours before the House Democratic Caucus meets today to nominate a candidate for House speaker, a judge will decide whether to issue the caucus temporary restraining order.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has filed a petition in the Cole County Circuit Court requesting that Democratic Caucus be open to the public. Party leaders intend to keep the meeting closed.

Under the Sunshine Law, meetings involving governmental bodies are required to be open to the public.

But House Majority Caucus Chair Gene Copeland, D-Madrid, disagreed that the Democratic Caucus classifies.

"That's not a governmental activity," he said. "We're not paid to come up here and go to caucus."

Missouri's constitution gives both the House and Senate power to hold closed sessions "in cases which may require secrecy."

Republicans and Democrats traditionally have closed their caucuses to outsiders, although there have been an occasional open one.

The fear among the Democrats about public exposure of the Speaker race was so great during this fall's veto session that they took the unusual step of taping paper over the windows of the House chamber -- preventing reporters from seeing who was speaking.

House staff guard the entrances to the chamber to further ensure secrecy.

The petition to issue a temporary restraining order was filed not long before another legal matter involving the Democrats was dropped.

On Tuesday, the three local prosecutors investigating Griffin's ties with gambling companies announced that they did not find evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

The prosecutors issued a 16-page letter that criticized Attorney General Jay Nixon for "the many leaks to the media and utter lack of confidentiality."

It was Nixon who wrote a letter to the prosecutors in February claiming that he had enough facts to prosecute Griffin.

Griffin, D-Cameron, said that he was grateful for his exoneration, but wished it had come three months earlier.

"I'm just hopeful now that now that I have this behind me that I can continue serving out the prescribed period of speaker that I've indicated that then, in turn, I can get on with making a livelihood," the Speaker told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday.

Despite the investigation's outcome, Griffin said that he is not reconsidering his decision to step down as House speaker. Griffin said that he can't financially afford to continue the rest of his term as speaker or state legislator.

Griffin said his legal defense fund has raised $10,000 to help pay for his legal fees, which are "well in the excessive of what the legal defense fund has taken in."

Griffin, whose 15-year reign as House speaker is the longest in Missouri history, would not say who he would like to see take his place.

Seven Democrats are vying for the speaker's office - the most powerful position in the House of Representatives often called "the second most powerful position in state government."

Copeland said that with seven candidates, there is no front runner.

The word out in the Capitol hallways is no candidate has garnered more than 20 committed votes among the Democrats.

Copeland said that members of the caucus will nominate each potential candidate and give a short speech in that person's favor.

"It's just like your nominating anyone at the church social," he said.

After the nomination process, the selection will be a process of elimination. After the seven nominees are voted on, the nominee with the fewest votes will be dropped. The caucus then votes on the six remaining. This process will continue until one candidate emerges.

Griffin predicts it could take up to three hours, although another House Democratic leader predicted the caucus could run into the evening.

Despite no front runner, Copeland said that the caucus will have no trouble rallying behind whoever emerges today as the House speaker candidate.