JEFFERSON CITY — A recently indicted state lawmaker emailed House Speaker Rob Vescovo on Wednesday claiming she had the backing of the House’s No. 2 Republican — hours after Vescovo had called on her to resign.
Rep. Patricia Derges, R-Nixa, indicted on federal fraud charges of falsely promoting a fake stem cell product as helping treat illnesses such as COVID-19, wrote that House Majority Leader Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, had been supportive of her amid her legal troubles.
Plocher hasn’t publicly called on Derges to resign, saying in a brief statement Friday he believed in due process. Vescovo and Plocher’s diverging responses could be a reflection of Plocher’s intent to balance the desires of the entire GOP caucus as he tries not to alienate anyone ahead of his possible candidacy for House speaker.
“He has told me many times to stand strong, do not bend, do not give in, do not let fear and intimidation break you — you can do this — keep your faith strong — we are here to support you,” Derges said in the Wednesday email obtained Friday by the Post-Dispatch.
She said Plocher had reminded her of the concept of innocent until proven guilty “many times over the last weeks and months.”
Vescovo, R-Arnold, the top-ranking member of the chamber, stripped Derges of her committee assignments Monday. About six hours before her email Wednesday, Vescovo had called on her to resign.
Plocher, in a statement, said: “I believe in the long-standing principle of due process,” adding “while I have not publicly called for her resignation, I stand firmly with Speaker Vescovo’s position.”
Michael Hafner, Plocher’s spokesman, said the majority leader had not spoken to Derges since before the indictment, when she professed her innocence to him. He said Plocher is not interfering with Vescovo’s efforts to force her resignation.
Prosecutors say Derges administered amniotic fluid, which she falsely claimed contained stem cells, as a treatment to patients who suffered from various diseases, including erectile dysfunction, Lyme disease and urinary incontinence.
The 20-count indictment also accuses the 63-year-old of illegally providing prescription drugs to clients and making false statements to federal agents investigating the case.
Derges was released on her own recognizance after making an initial court appearance Monday during which she pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
After the indictment was unsealed Monday, the House Republicans held a closed-door meeting in Jefferson City. One person in the room during the GOP’s caucus meeting on Monday reported that Plocher urged members not to make hasty calls for Derges to resign.
A second person in the room said Plocher’s comments had to do with allowing leadership to handle the situation, ensuring the GOP caucus was speaking as one voice and avoiding a situation where Derges was flooded with calls from individual members to resign.
By Wednesday, Vescovo called on Derges to resign.
The statement followed a second House caucus meeting where Vescovo gauged the mood of GOP members, two people who attended the Wednesday meeting said. They reported the overwhelming sentiment was that Derges should resign.
Unlike many statements sent out by House GOP leadership over the years, this one was only signed by the House speaker; the House majority leader and speaker pro tem, Rep. John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, were not mentioned in the release.
“After speaking with her and with the caucus, I am asking her to resign her seat with the House,” Vescovo said. “The legal process will ultimately determine her guilt or innocence, but this is clearly a time for her to spend with her family as she focuses on her legal issues, and for the people of the 140th district to move forward with selecting a replacement who can effectively advocate for their interests.”
Plocher was selected for the No. 2 post in November after an interparty battle against Rep. Curtis Trent, R-Springfield.
In her email, Derges said she plans to serve out her two-year term after being elected to her post in November.
“I made a promise to my district,” she wrote. “I may not be able to serve in a committee, but can still represent their desires on bills. I assure you I will continue to give 150%.
“My attorney is excellent and has this handled,” she said. “I look forward to the day, which based on what we have, should not be that far away, that my innocence will prevail.”
Stacie Bilyeu, of Springfield, is Derges’ defense attorney.
Derges isn’t the first Missouri lawmaker to stay in office after being indicted by federal authorities.
Among others, Rep. E.J. “Lucky” Cantrell, an Overland Democrat and president of the Missouri State Building and Construction Trades Council, ran for reelection in 1990 despite being convicted in September of that year of conspiring to embezzle union funds, the Post-Dispatch reported at the time.
Cantrell, described in his obituary as a tough-talking former autoworker and a powerful force in Missouri politics, lost reelection that year and died in 2000.