Legal tab at $1.5 million in Blunt e-mail lawsuits

Wednesday, January 7, 2009 | 6:11 p.m. CST; updated 7:41 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 7, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — The legal spat over Gov. Matt Blunt's e-mails and a fired staff attorney has cost Missouri taxpayers about $1.5 million.

Records provided to The Associated Press under the Sunshine Law show the state has spent more than $900,000 to defend Blunt and several past and present administration officials against a lawsuit by former legal counsel Scott Eckersley.

A separate attorney general's investigation into the e-mail practices of the governor's office has cost the state nearly $600,000, a majority of which has gone toward Blunt's defense.

Blunt's term as governor ends Monday. But the tab is likely to grow larger, even as all sides have bemoaned the taxpayer costs.

Eckersley's lawsuit alleges he was wrongly terminated in September 2007, then defamed by Blunt's administration, after raising concerns about e-mail deletions in the governor's office. Blunt's office says he was fired for legitimate reasons, including doing excessive private business with state resources.

The former staff attorney's allegations helped spur Attorney General Jay Nixon — who is to succeed Blunt as governor — to appoint special investigators in November 2007 to look into whether the governor's office violated public records laws.

A Cole County judge on Monday approved a legal settlement in that case requiring Blunt's office to give investigators thousands of e-mails that were previously provided to a media consortium under a separate settlement.

Blunt's office has asserted that "Nixon's e-mail team has wasted more than $600,000 of taxpayer money with nothing to show for it but false accusations."

Records show most of that money has been spent by Blunt's office.

Blunt's private legal team, led by former Supreme Court Judge John Holstein of Springfield, billed the state more than $372,000 through mid-December, including more than $7,000 in late fees because the governor's office had not paid any bills by November. Holstein is paid $300 an hour.

By comparison, the various attorneys and investigators working on Nixon's behalf, billed the state more than $186,000 through mid-December. The plurality of that went to St. Louis attorney Chet Pleban, who was paid $140 an hour.

Nixon rejected Blunt's assertions that the investigation has been a waste of money.

"Clearly the attention on retention (of e-mails) has dramatically affected the openness and operation of the executive branch of the state of Missouri," Nixon said. "We've come a long way from saying that e-mails were not, in any circumstance, public records" — an assertion the governor's office made in September 2007 but from which it subsequently backed off.

Blunt's impending departure from office and the legal settlement in the attorney general's investigation have added to the pressure for Eckersley to also settle his lawsuit against Blunt.

Whereas Blunt's private attorneys are being paid by the hour by the state, Eckersley's attorneys are working on a contingency fee arrangement, meaning they would be paid a portion of whatever settlement or court judgment occurs.

Through Monday, the state had been billed nearly $914,000 by the various private sector attorneys defending against Eckersley's lawsuit on behalf of Blunt, communications director Rich Chrismer, former chief of staff Ed Martin, former governor's office legal counsel Henry Herschel and former Office of Administration legal counsel Rich AuBuchon.

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