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Senate and DNR battle during Missouri E. coli probe

Friday, August 21, 2009 | 1:19 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — A Missouri Senate committee investigating an E. coli report delayed for about a month by the Department of Natural Resources is battling with the agency over access to department employees and records.

Sen. Brad Lager, who is leading the investigation, said Senate staff weren't allowed to interview DNR employees Thursday and complained in a letter to DNR Director Mark Templeton.

"It is the Committee's concern that any interference by DNR attorneys will prove a chilling effect on the information provided by the interviewees," wrote Lager, R-Savannah. "The public desires and deserves the unfettered and unadulterated testimony of these individuals on this matter."

Templeton told The Kansas City Star that the agency and Senate investigators had agreed to allow the department's general counsel to be present during interviews.

"If there are going to be different ground rules, we would like them clarified," Templeton said. "We are committed to working with the Senate, the media, the citizens, with anybody to provide them with information about any aspects of the department operations."

Lager denies agreeing to allow agency lawyers to be present during interviews. His committee has requested e-mails from almost two dozen people, and it has asked Capitol Police to retain security camera footage around the governor's office from May 26 through July 30.

The tiff harkens to E. coli samples taken from the Lake of the Ozarks on May 26 but not reported until late June 26. Those samples showed bacteria levels that in two places were 19 times higher than recommended. The findings were released along with later testing that showed lower E. coli levels.

A DNR spokeswoman initially told the Star that the report wasn't released earlier because of concerns that it could harm tourism. Department officials have since said the report should have been released immediately and will be in the future.

The Lake of the Ozarks is a popular Midwest tourist destination about an hour southwest of Jefferson City and is created by a dam owned by St. Louis-based utility Ameren Corp. The company agreed to provide $15,000 a year to monitor for E. coli as part of a 2007 state settlement. State health officials say they are not aware of anyone becoming ill after swimming in the lake.

Last week, Attorney General Chris Koster cleared the DNR of violating any state open records laws when it refused to release information. The attorney general concluded that no one sought the testing data in a way that the department should have interpreted as a Sunshine Law request.

 


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