Investigator objects to Blunt e-mail settlement

Thursday, January 1, 2009 | 5:00 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — An attorney representing special investigators picked to determine if the e-mail policies of the Missouri governor's office complied with state open records laws said that he will object to a legal settlement in the case.

Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, was sued by two court-appointed lawyers over access to the office's e-mail records. Bipartisan court-selected attorneys Joe Maxwell and Louis Leonatti took over the lawsuit initially filed by special investigators picked by Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon.

The case had been scheduled for trial   on Monday in Cole County Circuit Court, but a settlement that was announced Dec. 23 gave the investigators free access to certain e-mails. Blunt admitted no wrongdoing and was dismissed from the case, and future lawsuits were blocked.

Maxwell and Leonatti were picked to take on the case because a Cole County judge ruled that the special investigators didn't have standing to sue.

But Chet Pleban, a St. Louis attorney representing the investigators, said this week that he considers the settlement unacceptable and that he will file an objection during a hearing on Monday . He said a decision on whether Blunt's office violated laws on open records and document retention should be made through the judicial system, not by the investigators.

Although they are no longer directly involved in the lawsuit they filed, Pleban said the investigators should be heard.

"They have been in it from the beginning, and because they've been in it from the beginning, the court and the public have a right to know what their position is," Pleban said.

But he acknowledged the objection is unlikely to have much effect, calling the settlement "signed, sealed and delivered."

Maxwell, a former Democratic lieutenant governor, could not be reached for comment.

Throughout the investigation, Blunt's office has condemned the probe as partisan and a waste of state money. A spokeswoman for Blunt's office said it's not surprising Pleban would try to prolong the case.

"Chet Pleban wishes these false accusations were true, but unfortunately his chaotic antics have cost Missouri taxpayers more than $150,000," spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said.

Under the settlement, the investigators picked by Nixon have until Jan. 26 to file any written reports about document retention practices in the governor's office. Before public disclosure of those findings, Blunt's attorneys are to receive an advance copy to attach a rebuttal by Jan. 30.

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; he was fired two weeks later.

Blunt officials have said Eckersley was fired for justifiable reasons unrelated to e-mails, including using state resources to perform a greater amount of private-sector work than he had been approved to do. The documents previously released by the governor's office also showed Eckersley had done private-sector work and occasionally had been late to work.

State records show that the legal wrangling over e-mails and defending against Eckersley's suit has cost the state about $1 million.

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