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Nixon's office under scrutiny regarding E. coli report

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 | 5:09 p.m. CDT; updated 5:48 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 29, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's office said Wednesday that it was unaware of a report on dangerously high levels of E. coli in the Lake of the Ozarks until days before its release, despite a newspaper report that a state official sought a copy weeks earlier before a meeting in the governor's office.

E-mails obtained by the Springfield News-Leader indicate that Joe Bindbeutel, the former deputy director and general counsel for the Department of Natural Resources, sought the agency's E. coli report on June 3, one day before a meeting with an executive for a utilities trade group and an aide to Gov. Jay Nixon.

The department has come under fire for revelations that it withheld the report for a month. A Senate environmental committee has said it will investigate, and Attorney General Chris Koster is looking at whether state open-records laws were violated.

Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the June 4 meeting focused on energy issues because Bindbeutel was a possible nominee for the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities. Kristy Manning, the governor's deputy director of legislative affairs, also attended.

Cardetti said neither E. coli nor the Lake of the Ozarks was discussed and that Bindbeutel did not leave a copy of the report.

"He came straight to the meeting and left. It was his only meeting (with the governor's office) that day and at no time did the Lake of the Ozarks come up," Cardetti said.

Nixon appointed Bindbeutel in June to the Administrative Hearing Commission, which considers disputes with state agencies. A call by the AP to Bindbeutel seeking comment was referred to the Department of Natural Resources.

Agency Director Mark Templeton said he did not know why Bindbeutel had sought the E. coli report for the June 4 meeting.

The Lake of the Ozarks was tested for bacteria on May 26, but the findings were not released until June 26, when lower E. coli levels from later testing also were reported. The report showed E. coli levels that in two places were 19 times higher than the state standard.

A Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman initially told The Kansas City Star the water report was withheld because of concerns that it could harm tourism and businesses. Department officials have since said the report should have been available immediately.

Cardetti said the first anyone in the governor's office became aware of the report was in a regularly scheduled June 23 oversight meeting between Templeton and the governor's chief of staff. Templeton said he was told during that meeting to "get this information out expeditiously."

The Lake of the Ozarks, about an hour southwest of Jefferson City, draws vacationers from across the Midwest. It's created by a dam owned by St. Louis-based utility Ameren Corp., which agreed to provide $15,000 a year to monitor for E. coli as part of a 2007 state settlement over a dam failure.

E. coli can cause influenza-like illnesses and even death in people infected through open cuts or when it is swallowed. The state health department said it is not aware of anyone who was sickened in the Lake of the Ozarks.

 


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