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By the time allegations that Rick Roeber sexually and physically abused his children were made public, it was too late to stop him from becoming the GOP’s state representative for Missouri’s 34th District last year, Republican Party officials and strategists said Tuesday.
Roeber, of Lee’s Summit, had already won his primary, running unopposed. GOP officials and consultants said it’s uncommon for either party in Missouri to deeply vet primary candidates.
“You kind of think the voters will take care of it,” former Missouri Republican Party director Jean Evans said of the accusations, disclosed by The Kansas City Star Editorial Board in September 2020, as Roeber headed into the general election. “There wasn’t anything we could do” after Roeber insisted he would still run, she said.
He went on to win, beating Democrat Chris Hager by 301 votes. This week, he faces widespread, bipartisan condemnation after the GOP-led House Ethics Committee released a report unanimously finding the accusations against him credible. The House is expected to vote to expel him, possibly as early as Wednesday.
Even as House lawmakers prepare to oust only the second member in their history, Jackson County GOP Chairman David Lightner said he would not have supported intervening in Roeber’s candidacy if he knew about the allegations earlier.
“I personally feel that if someone is, they’ve got that sort of past but they’ve made themselves better… I go on how they’ve improved themselves in life,” he said, adding that some county Republicans believed the accusations were driven by “partisan politics.”
Roeber has denied the allegations and told the House committee they were the result of a “bitter divorce” and the fact that “all my kids are Democrats.”
None of Jackson County’s four Republican state representatives responded to inquiries about how much contact Roeber had with local and state-level GOP officials while running for his late wife’s seat.
Prior to Rebecca Roeber’s death in 2019, her husband was not active in party politics other than supporting her career as a state representative, said Rick Roeber’s campaign treasurer, Robert Hertzog, a friend of the couple.
Rebecca Roeber, a charter school advocate who was widely liked among Missouri Republicans, died on vacation in July 2019, four months after she sustained serious injuries in a car crash. Rick Roeber had been her campaign committee treasurer.
Less than two weeks later, he closed her committee, donating the remaining balance of $13,600 to the House Republican Campaign Committee, then opened a committee for his own candidacy. He received some donations but his campaign cash was significantly boosted with a $10,000 loan from himself, records show.
Roeber decided “shortly after she passed” that he wanted to run for her seat, Hertzog said, “to continue to try to do the things she had not been able to finish.”
In a resignation letter Roeber tried to submit last week before it was rejected by his colleagues, he said those goals included voting for school choice measures his wife had championed. He was one of the “yes” votes in the House on a controversial and long-sought bill to provide tax credits for scholarships to pay for public school students to attend private schools, which received the minimum number of votes needed to pass in February.
When he declared he was running, Evans said some Republicans who had served with Rebecca Roeber expressed misgivings about Rick Roeber’s personality, but said she wanted to “give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“People do strange things when they’re grieving,” she said. “I was put off by him in different ways personally, but I didn’t know anything” about the abuse allegations.
The party recruits candidates to run for open seats, and Evans said Republican officials “talked to some people” in that district but did not find anyone other than Roeber.
Lightner said Roeber was known at the time in the local party only as a recovering alcoholic who “sought to be a better man and tried to erase his past as much as possible.”
Republican strategist James Harris said it’s not common for either party or their House campaign committees to conduct background checks on primary candidates.
“They don’t have the resources,” he said, adding that Roeber’s circumstances made vetting even less likely.
“When it’s the spouse of a recently deceased lawmaker they’d probably be more sensitive,” Harris said.
Jon Ratliff, interim director last year of the House Republican Campaign Committee, did not return a call seeking comment. Ratliff’s consulting partner, Scott Dieckhaus of Palm Strategic Group, said vetting a single House candidate would not have been a priority when the party’s “focus is on recruiting in places where they don’t have a candidate.”
The House Republican Campaign Committee did not publicly support Roeber, and took his district off its “target list” of races to try to win, The Missouri Times reported last year.
Nor did it disavow him in a public statement in the general election, as House Republican leaders did last February when Kansas City Republican Steve West filed to run in the primary for a House seat. They called his comments about gay and Jewish people “vile, offensive and out of line with our party’s values.”
Both Evans and Lightner said they did not want the party to rush to judgment after the allegations were published. Lightner said he and other local party officials “didn’t feel it was necessary” to reject his candidacy, because “there was no real proof that we had seen.”
After Roeber won the seat, House Republicans swiftly booted him from their caucus and the House Ethics Committee, which is comprised of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, began an investigation that it concluded this week, largely confirming The Star editorial board’s report.
Lightner said he believed the committee had done the right thing, but called the situation “sad” and “unfortunate.”
“I think that when he felt that he should run for an office, he wanted to make sure that seat remained … in the philosophical views as a conservative of where his wife was,” he said. “We feel really bad about this, we really do.”