Blunt to provide old e-mails at no cost

Wednesday, October 15, 2008 | 7:00 p.m. CDT; updated 7:33 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 15, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Matt Blunt agreed Wednesday to give thousands of old e-mails for free to several media outlets who had sued his administration after initially being told the information would cost more than $23,000.

Under a legal settlement announced Wednesday, Blunt's administration is to provide free copies of records from the state's backup e-mail system to satisfy several media Sunshine Law requests.

The Associated Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Kansas City Star had intervened in a lawsuit against Blunt brought by a pair of court-appointed attorneys looking into whether the governor's office has followed e-mail retention and open records laws.

The settlement outlined in Cole County Circuit Court applies only to the media requests for information.

But former Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, one of the two special assistant attorneys general pursuing the underlying lawsuit, said after a public court hearing and private meeting in the judge's chambers Wednesday that "we are looking to try to settle, too.''

The media settlement calls for the governor's office to produce the sought-after e-mails within 30 days, with an exception for e-mails that relate to personnel decisions, litigation or other topics exempt from disclosure under the state Sunshine Law.

If there is a dispute between the media and Blunt's administration about whether an e-mail should legally be exempt from disclosure, the settlement calls for a final decision to be made by an arbitrator.

The settlement covers the e-mails of Blunt; former chief of staff Ed Martin; communications director Rich Chrismer; former general counsel Henry Herschel; former legal counsel Scott Eckersley; and Rich AuBuchon, the former legal counsel and acting director of Blunt's Office of Administration.

The e-mails are to include all those sent or received from Aug. 17 to Oct. 31, 2007, that were not permanently deleted before the state's backup e-mail system took a daily after-hours snapshot of the state's computer servers.

Former Supreme Court Judge John Holstein, who represents Blunt, said the governor wanted to end the legal battle over e-mails before 2009. Blunt's term ends in early January, and he is not seeking re-election.

"There have been so many lawyers charging so many fees that I think it's better off for the taxpayer'' to settle the media lawsuit, Holstein said. "Everybody ought to be pleased that this is resolved.''

Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said Wednesday that by providing the e-mails at no cost to the media, it could end up costing taxpayers about $50,000. She said Blunt's office has never denied access to e-mails not exempt by law from disclosure.

"Gov. Blunt believes in an open and transparent state government,'' Robinson said.

The e-mail saga involving Blunt's office began more than a year ago, when the Springfield News-Leader reported that Martin said he had deleted e-mails sought under the Sunshine Law by the newspaper. The Post-Dispatch then quoted Blunt's spokesman as saying there was no law requiring e-mails to be saved as public records.

In October 2007, Eckersley went public with claims that he had been fired from the governor's office after advising top staffers that e-mails are public records and that Blunt's office may be violating the Sunshine Law. Blunt said Eckersley was fired for doing private work with state resources and for various other reasons.

On Oct. 31, the AP filed a Sunshine Law request seeking the backup e-mail records of Blunt, Eckersley and other top deputies in Blunt's administration.

On Nov. 15, Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon – who is running for governor – announced plans for an investigation into Blunt's e-mail retention practices. The same day, Blunt directed his administration to come up with a new, better way of permanently archiving state e-mails.

The dispute landed in court on Jan. 9, when Eckersley sued Blunt and various deputies for wrongful termination and defamation. The next day, Blunt's office told the AP it would cost $23,625 to comply with its Sunshine Law request.

Blunt's attorneys later told Nixon's investigators it would cost nearly $541,000 to obtain backup e-mails from dozens of governor's office employees. Nixon's investigators sued in May.

After Judge Richard Callahan declared their suit had no legal standing, he ended up appointing Maxwell and Republican attorney Louis Leonatti as special assistant attorneys general and the duo forged ahead with the lawsuit. The media joined in that lawsuit.

Maxwell said Wednesday that their investigation is broader than the media records request, both in terms of the number of e-mails sought and in their mission. He said the investigation is meant to determine whether Blunt's office had an e-mail retention policy and was following it, and whether the governor's office was complying with Sunshine Law requests.

Eckersley's separate lawsuit remains pending in Jackson County court.

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