Special counsel chosen for Gov. Blunt e-mail lawsuit

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 | 2:00 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — The decision on whether to pursue a lawsuit against Gov. Matt Blunt over e-mail access now rests with a former Democratic officeholder and a former Republican president’s judicial nominee.

A Cole County judge on Tuesday picked two Mexico, Mo., lawyers to be special assistant attorneys general for the case. Joe Maxwell, a Democrat, is a former Missouri lieutenant governor and legislator, and Louis Leonatti was nominated to the federal bench in 1992 by then-President George H.W. Bush but was never confirmed.

The May lawsuit was filed in the Capitol’s home of Cole County by Mel Fisher, one of three investigators selected by Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon to look into allegations that the Republican governor’s office violated the state Sunshine Law by deleting e-mails.

The investigation team is seeking access to copies of backup e-mail records at no cost.

Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan ruled earlier this month that Fisher could not sue on behalf of the attorney general’s office.

Callahan dismissed the lawsuit but delayed his order for 10 days to allow Nixon’s office to decide a next step. Callahan recommended that Nixon join the lawsuit, that Fisher explain how he personally was harmed, or that Nixon request a court-appointed special counsel for the case.

Nixon’s office asked for a special counsel.

Callahan’s ruling on Tuesday gives the two special counsels until Aug. 26 to determine whether to pursue the lawsuit. The ruling also orders Nixon’s three investigators to cooperate with the newly appointed lawyers.

The attorney general’s office selected investigators to look into Blunt’s e-mail retention policies after former governor’s office attorney Scott Eckersley claimed he was fired for raising concerns about e-mail deletions. Blunt’s office has denied that assertion, instead saying Eckersley was fired for doing private work with state resources, among other things.

Maxwell said Tuesday that Callahan’s decision would allow for “the ability to have a bipartisan type of review” based on the case’s facts and the law. Maxwell said he and Leonatti planned to start by reviewing information already collected.

“This case will impact not only the governor but how government approaches these types of documents and what they are and how they’re handled,” Maxwell said, adding that he was speaking on behalf of himself and Leonatti because Leonatti is on a family vacation.

Blunt’s office released a statement Tuesday saying the lawsuit “accuses the governor of actions he did not take, it accuses the governor of actions that even if true would not be a violation of the law and it accuses the governor of actions that did not occur.”

Attorneys representing the governor have argued that there are many problems with the original lawsuit.

Former state Supreme Court Judge John Holstein, who represents Blunt, contends the attorney general’s office has no legal power to demand the governor turn over vast quantities of documents without paying research and copying fees allowed under the state open records law.

Blunt’s office and Holstein have said that Nixon’s investigators could begin receiving e-mail records if they pay $541,000 to cover the costs of retrieving the e-mails from backup files and for attorneys to determine those e-mails that don’t have to be disclosed.

Blunt’s office has told The Associated Press and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that it would cost about $23,625 to retrieve, review and produce sought e-mails requested under separate Sunshine Law requests, plus 10 cents per page for copies.

The AP, Post-Dispatch and Kansas City Star have asked for permission to join the investigators’ lawsuit to press separate requests for e-mail records filed under Missouri’s public records law.

Callahan has not ruled on the media’s request to intervene in the suit.

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