Attorney general candidates have plans to improve Sunshine Law

Sunday, July 13, 2008 | 4:32 p.m. CDT; updated 3:39 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — After some recent involvement in Sunshine Law dramatics, Rep. Jeff Harris of Columbia, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, has come up with a plan to improve the current policy.

In addition to the idea he suggested in a news release last September that would create a Sunshine Law Enforcement Unit, Harris illustrated five new policies he would incorporate if he is elected to the attorney general’s office.

The plan, called the Five Point Strategy to Protect Public Records, pushes for legislation that would prohibit state officials from having private e-mail accounts. It would also establish a legal presumption that documents are open records and give the attorney general’s office the authority to determine whether or not records are subject to the Sunshine Law.

Harris also wants to increase the maximum fine for Sunshine Law violators from $1,000 to $5,000.

The strategy was released about two months after a widely reported Sunshine Law compliance skirmish between Harris and Gov. Matt Blunt. The governor’s chief of staff, Trish Vincent, asked Harris to produce copies of every e-mail sent to or from his office and every document created by him or his staff since January 2003, which Harris said amounted to about 80,000 pages.

Vincent then narrowed the order to one day’s worth of content, which he provided.

A press release issued by Harris’ campaign stated that the representative questioned obvious political motives behind Blunt’s request, because it came the day after Harris commended two state employees for standing up to the governor in an investigation of Blunt’s Sunshine Law practices.

The investigators were appointed by Attorney General Jay Nixon to find out if Blunt’s office had violated the Sunshine Law by deleting e-mails, which are considered open record under the Sunshine Law Electronic Upgrade Act. The investigation led to a lawsuit that Blunt’s attorneys have asked to be dismissed.

Harris is not the only attorney general candidate with Sunshine Law experience. Rep. Margaret Donnelly, D-St. Louis, brought a suit against the Missouri Ethics Commission last December for planning closed hearings for candidates seeking exceptions from refunding over-the-limit campaign contributions. Donnelly claimed the hearings must be open under the Sunshine Law.

She has also cited a need for stricter penalties for Sunshine Law violators, a policy she will implement if elected.

“As attorney general, I intend to be more involved in pursuing violations of the law, especially at the local level,” Donnelly said.

Sen. Chris Koster, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, echoed the call for more penalties. He plans to push for new laws under the Records Retention Act to provide penalties for destruction of public records. Koster would also like to incorporate safeguards for the protection of records in danger of destruction.

In addition to pursuing complaints regarding open government, Harris’ proposed Sunshine Law Enforcement Unit would educate citizens about their rights under the Sunshine Law.

Sen. Michael Gibbons, another Republican candidate for attorney general, agrees with the idea of teaching the state’s Sunshine Law policy. However, his tactic is to focus on governmental compliance.

“The Attorney General has an obligation to teach officials to comply,” Gibbons said.

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