Gov. Blunt demands $540,000 for e-mail records

Friday, March 7, 2008 | 12:30 p.m. CST; updated 6:24 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Gov. Matt Blunt is demanding that the attorney general’s investigators pay about $540,000 to obtain office e-mail records and has hired private attorneys to defend against a lawsuit alleging his office wrongfully deleted e-mails.

Attorney General Jay Nixon appointed a team of investigators last fall to look into whether Blunt’s office was violating the Sunshine Law or state document retention policies by deleting some e-mails.

That came after Blunt’s former legal counsel Scott Eckersley claimed he was fired for advising the governor’s office it was violating the open-records law.

John Holstein, a former Missouri Supreme Court judge who is representing Blunt’s office against the attorney general’s investigation, told Nixon’s appointed investigators that they would have to pay $540,940 to obtain e-mail records from the governor’s office, according to a letter obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Holstein wrote that the team’s 45 open-records requests would require 14,620 hours of staff time to retrieve and review backup e-mail disks from 43 office e-mail accounts going back to Aug. 17.

The number of hours breaks down to just over seven years of one employee’s time, working eight-hour days, five days a week.

Chet Pleban, a St. Louis lawyer representing the investigative team, said the charges were unreasonable.

“We are part of a governmental body investigating issues of public importance,” Pleban said. “We don’t believe that we are required to pay the same government for public records or documents that should be part of the public domain to begin with.”

The attorney general’s investigative team had asked for e-mails dating back to Jan. 1, 2007, but Holstein said e-mails not on computers before Aug. 17 are no longer retained on the backup tapes.

This is not the first time Blunt’s office has requested a substantial payment to comply with a request for e-mails from the backup computer tapes. In January, Blunt’s administration told The Associated Press that it would cost $23,625 to retrieve, review and produce e-mails sought under a Sunshine Law request, plus additional copying fees of 10 cents per page. The AP has not paid that amount.

Pleban said Blunt’s payment demand means investigators won’t be able to complete their work and file a report by a March 17 deadline set by Nixon.

The e-mail spat has carried strong political overtones because Nixon, a Democrat, was running against the Republican Blunt for governor. Blunt announced in January that he would not seek re-election, but Nixon remains a candidate.

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

Eckersley sued Blunt and four present or past members of his administration in January. The lawsuit claims he was fired and defamed in retaliation for pointing out that some e-mails were being deleted in violation of Missouri’s Sunshine Law and record retention policies. Blunt has contended Eckersley was fired for justifiable reasons, including doing private work with state resources.

Records show Blunt has hired the Bryan Cave law firm to represent him in that lawsuit at hourly rates of $210 to $370, depending on the attorney. The paperwork was signed by law firm partner Jerry Hunter, a prominent Republican and campaign contributor to Blunt.

Documents also confirm the state is paying the legal bills for private attorneys to represent Blunt’s former chief of staff Ed Martin, former general counsel Henry Herschel, communications director Rich Chrismer and deputy administration commissioner Rich AuBuchon.

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