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State to pay $500,000 to settle e-mail lawsuit filed against former Gov. Blunt

Friday, May 22, 2009 | 2:05 p.m. CDT; updated 2:15 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 22, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — The state has agreed to pay $500,000 to a former governor's office attorney to settle claims he was wrongfully terminated and defamed by Gov. Matt Blunt after questioning the office's e-mail deletion practices.

The settlement was announced Friday by Attorney General Chris Koster.

Timeline of key events

Sept. 9, 2007 — The Springfield News-Leader publishes a column saying it filed a Sunshine Law request the previous month for e-mails from the governor's office but was told the e-mails didn't exist. The newspaper, however, reported that it had obtained one of the e-mails from another source.

Sept. 13 — Blunt's office tells the St. Louis Post Dispatch, "There is no statute or case that requires the state to retain individual e-mails as a public record. However, even though they are not a public record, if we have e-mails that are relevant to a Sunshine request, we always provide them in compliance with the law."

Sept. 14 — Blunt legal counsel Scott Eckersley advises several members of the governor's staff that reporters should be told e-mails can be public records that must be retained.

Sept. 21 — Eckersley and Blunt's chief legal counsel, Henry Herschel, have a verbal confrontation.

Sept. 28 — Eckersley is fired.

Oct. 26 — Deputy Commissioner of Administration Rich AuBuchon sends information packets to the News-Leader, Post-Dispatch, The Associated Press and The Kansas City Star seeking to explain why Eckersley was fired. The packets accuse Eckersley of doing private work on state computers and viewing a "group sex Internet site," among other things.

Oct. 28 — The Post-Dispatch and News-Leader publish articles in which Eckersley says he was fired after raising concerns about how the governor's office was handling e-mails and Sunshine Law requests.

Oct. 31 — The AP files a Sunshine Law request for e-mails contained on the state's backup recovery system for Blunt, Eckersley and several others in Blunt's administration.

Nov. 15 — Attorney General Jay Nixon appoints special investigators to determine whether Blunt's office complied with the state's record retention policies and Sunshine Law. Blunt's office condemns the probe as politically motivated and announces plans to create a permanent e-mail retention system that goes beyond legal requirements.

Jan. 9, 2008 — Eckersley files a lawsuit against Blunt and others in his administration. It claims he was fired for being a whistle-blower about Sunshine Law violations in the governor's office and that the information packets sent to reporters was defamatory.

Jan. 22 — Blunt announces he will not seek re-election.

May 5 — Special investigators file a lawsuit against Blunt accusing officials in his administration of ordering backup e-mail records deleted after the AP requested them. The special investigators also seek e-mails from the governor's office at no cost.

June 11 — The AP, Post-Dispatch and Star seek court permission to join the special investigators' lawsuit against Blunt in order to pursue their own Sunshine Law requests for e-mails.

July 11 — Cole County Judge Richard Callahan dismisses the special investigators suit against Blunt, finding that they don't have standing to sue.

July 22 — Callahan appoints Republican attorney Louis Leonatti and former Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell to pursue the case against Blunt.

Aug. 25 — Leonatti and Maxwell refile the lawsuit against Blunt.

Nov. 13 — Blunt's office delivers to the three media companies thousands of paper copies of e-mail records requested under the Sunshine Law in compliance with a legal settlement with the media.

Dec. 9 — Callahan blocks an effort by investigators to take Blunt's sworn testimony.

Jan. 5, 2009 — Callahan approves a legal settlement requiring Blunt to give investigators thousands of e-mails and setting up a procedure for issuing a final report.

Jan. 12: Blunt's term as governor ends.

March 3 — Investigators release a report concluding Blunt's administration violated Missouri's public records laws, which Blunt denies in a rebuttal released with the report.

May 22: Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announces the state has agreed to pay $500,000 to Eckersley to settle his wrongful termination and defamation lawsuit against Blunt and four former Blunt administration officials.

 



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Former governor's office lawyer Scott Eckersley sued Blunt and other administration officials in January 2008, alleging they retaliated against him after he raised concerns that the office may have violated public records laws in its handling of e-mails.

Blunt has maintained that Eckersley was fired in September 2007 for justifiable reasons, including doing excessive amounts of private legal work from his state office.

The attorney general's office released a statement Friday on behalf of Eckersley, Blunt and the other defendants from Blunt's administration saying "all of the parties strongly believe in the merits of their positions."

"However, for various reasons including the cost of continuing to litigate this matter through trial, (all parties) agree that settling the case for the amount of $500,000. ... In exchange for full and complete release of all claims asserted is in the best interests of the taxpayers of the state of Missouri," the joint statement said.

Koster said the state legal expense fund, from which the settlement will be paid, already has shelled out more than $1.3 million to attorneys defending Blunt and four former staff members named as defendants in Eckersley's lawsuit.

Eckersley's attorneys will be paid with some of the settlement proceeds.

After Eckersley went public with his assertions in October 2007, then-Attorney General Jay Nixon appointed a special investigative team to look into whether the governor's office was complying with record-retention requirements and the Missouri Sunshine Law.

Those investigators issued a report in March asserting that Blunt's administration violated Missouri's public records laws but opted not to refer the matter to prosecutors.

Blunt chose not to run for re-election in 2008. Nixon won that election and took over as governor in January.

 


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