Blunt lawyers seek to substitute Nixon in lawsuit

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 | 6:13 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt is seeking to pass the defense of a defamation and wrongful termination lawsuit to his political rival and successor, Gov. Jay Nixon.

Attorney for the former governor's office counsel Scott Eckersley, who is suing Blunt, asserts the request is legally wrong and "a slight of hand that would make even the most jaded political operative squirm."

The latest legal twist comes as attorneys for Blunt and Eckersley have been negotiating over a potential settlement that would pay Eckersley from a state legal defense fund and put to rest the long-running case.

Eckersley was fired by Blunt's chief of staff in September 2007 and went public the next month with claims that he was dismissed after raising concerns that Blunt's office was defending the deletion of e-mails in violation of public records laws.

Blunt has contended Eckersley was fired for legitimate reasons, including doing excessive amounts of private legal work from his state office.

Nixon, who at the time was attorney general and campaigning for governor, appointed special investigators to look into whether Blunt's office followed laws requiring certain records to be retained and made available to the public under Sunshine Law requests.

In January 2008, Eckersley sued Blunt and several of his administration officials for wrongful termination and defamation. Blunt announced that same month he would not seek re-election. Nixon won the gubernatorial election and succeeded Blunt in January.

The investigators Nixon appointed completed their work in March and issued a report asserting Blunt's administration violated Missouri's public records laws but opting not to refer the matter to prosecutors.

In court documents filed last month, Blunt's attorneys asked that Blunt be removed as a defendant in Eckersley's lawsuit and replaced with Nixon. Their request notes that lawsuits naming defendants in their official capacity often are changed when a new person takes office. It also contends Blunt also should be dismissed from the lawsuit in his individual capacity.

A similar request was filed by former Blunt administration officials Ed Martin, Henry Herschel, Richard AuBuchon and Rich Chrismer, who want to be replaced as defendants by the Nixon administration officials now holding their former positions.

In a court response filed last week, Eckersley's attorneys called the requests an ironic slight-of-hand move, noting that the entire controversy began when Blunt's staff allegedly tried to keep secret e-mails discussing political attacks against Nixon.

"Neither justice nor the Missouri Rules require Governor Nixon to be forced to answer for the individual misconduct of the prior holder of their office," said Eckersley's attorneys.

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