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Not backing down: Inside Rep. Tricia Derges’ fight for her constituents, innocence

  

Rep. Tricia Derges is not staying silent. 

Though she vociferously maintains her innocence, Derges faces multiple federal charges alleging she fraudulently used pandemic funds, gave fake stem cell treatments to patients, wrote illegal prescriptions, and lied to investigators. 

Derges, a Republican freshman state representative from southwest Missouri, was stripped of her committee assignments, removed from the House Republican Caucus, and relegated to what she equates to a “maintenance closet” on the fourth floor of the Capitol shortly after news of the indictment broke. 

Now, about seven months after federal investigators held a press conference in Springfield to announce the charges, Derges is speaking candidly in an exclusive interview with The Missouri Times about her role in government, a potential state Senate bid, and criticisms she has of the House speaker for how she was punished by the legislature sans guilty verdict. 

“I believe I have more than proven that I’ve kept my word and I’ve put people first,” Derges, 63, said. “I didn’t back down despite this nightmare I’ve been going through for the past year and a half. We’ve got to be like steel if we’re going to withstand these blows.” 

Derges’ trial has been moved to June 2022, which she and her attorney, Albert Watkins, said violates her Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. 

However, it has seen some movement in recent weeks as Watkins has filed a series of motions alleging prosecutors misled the court regarding the health of a key witness (which ultimately put the trial back) and a potential conflict with a prosecutor who used to be an investigator for the Missouri Medicaid Fraud Control Unit which initiated a probe into Derges. 

The motions have sought to dismiss the charges as well as compel documents and witnesses. 

“I’m so happy to see evidence finally coming out that testifies that good always prevails — something that has really been hard to remember at times as I have gone through all of this,” Derges said. 

Tricia Derges office
Rep. Tricia Derges was relegated to an office on the fourth floor this session. (THE MISSOURI TIMES/CAMERON GERBER)

Derges, who represents HD 140 in Christian County south of Springfield, was only in the Capitol for one month before she was removed from the House Republican Caucus and stripped from committees. None of the 10 bills she sponsored were even heard in committee. But she still makes a salary. 

So how does Derges approach her job and constituents? 

Derges said while committees are a great tool for members of the public to have their voices heard, oftentimes legislators already know whether they’re going to move a bill before it’s even heard. Without committee assignments, Derges said she has more time for other things such as answering constituents’ emails personally and researching all legislation before it’s on the floor for a vote. 

“As long as I can push that button on the floor, I’m doing my job 100 percent,” Derges said. “I do know what’s going on in the Capitol, and that’s what my constituents want.” 

Derges has penned lengthy social media posts with updates for her district, including encouraging her constituents to drop off products or food to her medical clinic for them to be displayed at Missouri Bicentennial events. She’s also kept her followers updated on how omnibus bills can grow at the end of session, the status of the Second Amendment Preservation Act, and a “hidden” amendment in a prison bill she said could have impacted medical care for underserved communities in Missouri. 

Derges said she’s developed a group of friends in the legislature on both sides of the aisle who are supportive of her and her constituents’ issues. However, she had some strong words about how leadership has handled her case, equating it to a “complete dictatorship.” 

“The thing that’s depressing about this whole thing, I watched our speaker trample up our constitution,” Derges said. “Our constitution, one of the greatest rights it gives every single people is the right to be innocent until they are proven guilty. In literally moments, this man became the judge, juror, and executioner. I was immediately deemed guilty, and innocent became just a figment of the imagination.” 

Rep. Tricia Derges stands in the side gallery of the House floor. (HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS/TIM BOMMEL)

“The integrity of the constitution was stepped all over in that Capitol, and I’ve never understood why that’s okay — and it’s not okay with a lot of people. What I don’t think they know is there are a lot of my associates on the House floor who aren’t happy with any of this,” Derges continued. 

House Speaker Rob Vescovo did not respond to a request for comment. In a joint statement with Majority Floor Leader Dean Plocher and Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann in February, Vescovo encouraged Derges to resign her seat. 

But Derges hasn’t resigned — and she doesn’t plan to. In fact, she’s contemplating a run for state Senate in SD 20 in Christian and Greene counties. Republican Sen. Eric Burlison, who holds the seat now, has decided to run for Congress

“I have 1 million other things I could be doing, but I think if good people don’t stand up and keep fighting, we’re not going to be in good shape,” Derges said. “The same reasons I ran for the House and was elected are the very same reasons I believe I would be far more effective in the Senate. You see the bills come through, and you vote, but ultimately the end decision lies in the Senate. I’ve seen a lot of things that were excellent bills come across the House floor, and then politics steps in. It’s frustrating to watch.” 

“I just feel like we don’t need any more politicians in the House and Senate. We’ve got plenty. We don’t get a lot done in our lawmaking process. We get tied up a lot in the political stuff that goes on. … I went to Jefferson City to stand up and fight for the rights of our people — not just in my district, but in our state. You have to uphold the constitution and support values. I’m obviously a conservative Republican, but there is no reason that both sides can’t work together and come to a meeting in the middle. It’s not that hard; I sit down in negotiations in business.” 

If she is ever elected to the upper chamber, Derges said she specifically wants to fight what she sees as government overreach, support policies that better equip schools to tackle the various learning needs of students, make Missouri attractive to businesses, and curtail the ability to file frivolous lawsuits. 

“We have a major, fierce battle in front of us, and I think each day we see more and more of our freedoms slipping away,” Derges said. “We can’t stop fighting, and we can’t run off or be intimidated.” 

‘Nothing short of a circus’

Derges is licensed as an assistant physician who operates Ozark Valley Medical clinics in Branson, Ozark, and Springfield. She attended medical school in her 50s in the Netherland Antilles. 

The indictment alleged Derges wrote electronic prescriptions for oxycodone and Adderall and transmitted the drugs over the internet without having conducted in-person medical evaluations.

Derges also allegedly obtained amniotic fluid and falsely claimed it contained “mesenchymal stem cells” during a seminar and in personal consultations. The amniotic fluid did not, however, contain any stem cells, prosecutors said.

She has also been accused of fraudulently seeking and obtaining about $300,000 in pandemic relief funds for COVID-19 tests already paid for by clients at a for-profit clinic. 

Derges has pleaded not guilty and has maintained she committed no wrongdoing. Both Derges and Watkins have also questioned the timing of her case. Watkins said it commenced “just days after” Derges announced her candidacy for the House seat. 

Watkins, who has said the case is “nothing short of a circus,” has filed three separate motions in recent weeks related to the case in an attempt to produce documents and witnesses and to dismiss the charges altogether. 

In one instance, Watkins said prosecutors were “irresponsible and lacking requisite due diligence” when they claimed a key witness was hospitalized with a stroke. Watkins said he hired a private investigator who discovered the “out of town witness” driving to and shopping at home improvement stores when he was supposed to be hospitalized. 

“What we had here was an affirmative misrepresentation by the government to the court and to the defendant about a key witness. The key witness has every incentive not to testify because of the information my client has regarding misrepresentations by the university that employs the key witness,” Watkins told The Missouri Times. “It’s a really vital part of this case, and the government knows it.” 

However, in a response filed Wednesday, prosecutors said they informed Watkins and the court the government would be willing to forge ahead with the scheduled Aug. 16 hearing, but Watkins preferred to continue the matter in order to get the witness’s testimony. 

Prosecutors also said the witness had been released from the hospital at the time he was observed for just one hour by the private investigator and was under doctor supervision. The motion argued there was no misconduct on behalf of the government and maintained there was no violation of the Speedy Trial Act. 

When contacted for this story, Don Ledford, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Missouri, said it would not be “appropriate to publicly comment on a matter pending before the court. “

Additionally, Watkins said Assistant U.S. Attorney Shannon Kempf should be removed from the case due to a “conflict of interest” because he previously worked in the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit which initiated the probe into Derges. Watkins also said Derges has never participated in the Medicaid program.  

“We are not in the socialist republic of Guyana where a prosecutor is both a witness and a judge,” Watkins said. 

Rep. Tricia Derges speaks in Washington, D.C., in 2017 after receiving the National Jefferson Award and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award. (PROVIDED)

Derges said she decided to attend medical school after running a manufacturing company she started in her home. She opted to go to medical school in the Caribbean because her peers and teachers wouldn’t be respectful to Derges because of her age in more traditional schools in the U.S., she said. 

Derges said she did her training at CoxHealth in Springfield which is where she met a patient who inspired her eventually to open her clinics to provide medical care to the underserved in the community. A man had come into the hospital with a toothache, and Derges said a tooth needed to be extracted. But the patient said he didn’t have enough money for the procedure and didn’t qualify for the government-controlled low-income clinics, Derges said. 

“I’m going to make you a promise right now: When I graduate medical school, I’m going to do something about this,” Derges said she told the patient. 

Derges owns and operates Ozark Valley Medical clinics in Branson, Ozark, and Springfield. She is also the founder of “Lift Up Someone Today,” a medical non-profit which has served more than 25,000 people since 2016. She’s received the National Jefferson Award and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award.

“This is what I’ve stood for,” Derges said. “Boy, the medical associations do not want this. They were not excited when I was elected. But this is what I do. I support the underserved and try to provide good solutions. My clinic has provided some phenomenal solutions for problems, but that keeps big medical organizations from keeping people on medications for the rest of their lives.” 

Derges said her family — she has eight children and 23 grandchildren — gave her a button that says “I’ve survived damn near everything.” She said she’s ready for a new one that says “I’ve survived everything.”