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Missouri governor’s office settles e-mail deletion lawsuit

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 | 4:19 p.m. CST; updated 5:40 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 23, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The governor’s office will provide free copies of e-mails to investigators to settle a lawsuit that accused Gov. Matt Blunt and other officials of “knowingly and purposely” violating the state’s open-records law by denying access to the documents.

Under the deal announced in Cole County Circuit Court on Tuesday, the Republican governor admitted no wrongdoing, but his office agreed to hand over e-mails and allowed investigators appointed by Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon to inspect the office.

In a joint statement released after a brief hearing Tuesday to announce the settlement, the court-appointed attorneys and a lawyer representing Blunt said the agreement is a “comprehensive settlement of all the issues pertaining to the governor and his office.”

“Both parties agree, settlement of this matter is in the best interests of the citizens of the State of Missouri and the parties,” attorneys for both sides said in a written statement.

The e-mail lawsuit was scheduled for trial Jan. 5 — seven days before Blunt leaves office. A court hearing is set for that day should anyone want to object to the settlement.

The controversy over e-mail deletions in Blunt’s office began in September 2007, when the Springfield News-Leader said it had requested e-mail communications between the governor’s office and anti-abortion interests but was told the e-mails didn’t exist.

As an explanation, a Blunt spokesman said governor’s office employees regularly deleted e-mails and denied they needed to be retained as public records — an assertion from which the office later backed off. Blunt also said he routinely deleted e-mails and the office had no policy governing when to retain e-mails.

E-mails are public records under Missouri law. Depending on the topic, some can be deleted soon after receipt, others must be kept for three years and some must be saved for the state archives.

About the same time the media were questioning Blunt’s e-mail policies, records show that Scott Eckersley, then a legal counsel to the governor, was assigned to update the office’s Sunshine Law policy. On Sept. 14, 2007, he sent an e-mail to several top Blunt officials recommending they respond to the media by acknowledging that e-mails can be public records that must be retained.

Eckersley was fired two weeks later. He has filed a separate wrongful termination and defamation lawsuit. Blunt officials say he was fired for justifiable reasons unrelated to e-mails, including for doing private business work with state resources.

Although Nixon appointed investigators in November 2007 to look into whether Blunt’s office was complying with e-mail retention laws, the lawsuit was brought by special attorneys subsequently appointed by a Cole County judge to act on Nixon’s behalf.

 


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