Blunt refuses to answer questions about e-mail lawsuit

Thursday, January 10, 2008 | 1:56 p.m. CST; updated 2:59 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Matt Blunt ducked questions Thursday about a lawsuit alleging his office intentionally deleted e-mails in violation of open-records laws but defended the firing of the former staff attorney who sued him.

A whistleblower and defamation lawsuit filed Wednesday by former gubernatorial attorney Scott Eckersley claims that top Blunt aides directed staff in his office and other agencies to destroy e-mails to avoid providing information sought under public records requests.

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Blunt refused to either confirm or deny whether those directives were given, whether he was aware of the orders at the time or whether he approved of the e-mail deletions.

“I’m not going to respond to accusations in lawsuits,” Blunt told reporters at a Capitol news conference.

Earlier Thursday at the governor’s annual prayer breakfast, Blunt declined to answer questions from The Associated Press about Eckersley’s lawsuit but pledged to discuss it at a later news conference on drunken driving laws.

At that news conference, however, Blunt devoted barely two minutes to questions about the lawsuit — refusing to discuss it any detail — and then turned his back on reporters and walked out of the room while ignoring continued questions.

Eckersley claims he was fired in late September in retaliation for pointing out that the e-mail deletions by Blunt’s office violated Missouri’s Sunshine Law and document retention policies. Blunt has consistently denied that.

“I’m confident that the decision to dismiss this young man was indeed lawful and that the case is without merit,” Blunt said Thursday.

As Eckersley was about to go public with his allegations in late October, Blunt’s administration sent AP and other media a thick packet of papers defending Eckersley’s firing and questioning his character.

Included was a termination letter to Eckersley by Blunt’s then chief of staff, Ed Martin, claiming Eckersley had lied about using a “group sex Web site” and misused his state resources to do work on behalf of his father’s private health care business.

A cover letter to the media from Blunt’s deputy administration commissioner, Rich AuBuchon, also claimed Eckersley did a poor job as a legal adviser, was frequently tardy and had been questioned by Martin about drug use.

Eckersley denies all of those allegations and claims in his lawsuit that Blunt’s administration intentionally released false information “designed to injure, defame and smear” him.

His lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages for defamation, wrongful firing and violations of Missouri’s Sunshine Law and whistleblower protection act.

Eckersley’s attorneys and Blunt’s administration had been negotiating a potential settlement before the lawsuit was filed. Those efforts failed. But the amount of money was not the main sticking point. Eckersley wants Blunt to issue an apologetic retraction of the accusations made against him, specifically clearing him of the drug and sexual allegations and the assertions he was a lazy, poor employee.

“I can’t negotiate with my character,” Eckersley said Thursday.

The lawsuit names as defendants Blunt, Martin, AuBuchon, Blunt communications director Rich Chrismer and Blunt’s former general counsel, Henry Herschel. Martin and Herschel have both been replaced on Blunt’s staff, though the governor has praised their work.

Martin declined to comment about the lawsuit. AuBuchon, Herschel and Chrismer did not respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit claims Herschel and Martin directed the e-mail deletions. It also alleges that one or more of the five defendants ordered the state’s backup computer tapes for e-mails to be destroyed.

AuBuchon has previously denied that. So has the state’s computer chief, Dan Ross, who has said the backup tapes have been preserved. Blunt’s administration has not, however, complied with requests by the AP and other media to provide e-mails contained on those tapes.

After publicity about Eckersley’s accusations, Blunt in November directed Ross to come up with a way of permanently retaining government e-mails. On that same day, Attorney General Jay Nixon, who is challenging Blunt in the 2008 gubernatorial election, appointed a three-person team to investigate whether Blunt’s office was violating the Sunshine Law or document retention policies.

One of Nixon’s investigators, St. Louis attorney Chet Pleban, said Thursday that the lawsuit would not deter that investigation.

“We’re requesting a variety of documents, and we’re hoping for more cooperation from the governor than there has been,” Pleban said. “From our perspective, there is an easy way to do this and a hard way to do this.”

Eckersley’s lawsuit claims Blunt’s administration has a pattern of firing people for political motivations. It says Eckersley was assigned by Martin to determine who was responsible for misinterpreting how Missouri’s new minimum wage law applied to tipped employees.

The lawsuit says Eckersley identified the responsible person as the director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, who was then Rod Chapel. But the suit claims Martin was reluctant to fire the director “for political reasons.” Instead, the lawsuit says Martin fired department general counsel Cynthia Quetsch, because she had served under former Democratic Gov. Bob Holden and her husband worked for Nixon.

Associated Press writer Chris Blank contributed to this report.

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