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Ex-DNR official takes blame for report's delayed release

Thursday, September 3, 2009 | 2:13 p.m. CDT; updated 5:32 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 3, 2009

KANSAS CITY— A former Missouri Department of Natural Resources official is taking the blame for withholding a report that showed high bacteria levels at Lake of the Ozarks.

Joe Bindbeutel told The Kansas City Star that he made the decision in May to delay release of the report that showed high levels of E. coli in the lake.

"In hindsight, it's clear to me that not releasing that data sooner created a whole lot of suspicion and speculation that cast the department in a less than favorable light," said Bindbeutel, the former deputy director at the DNR. "That was just wrong."

He told the newspaper he didn't issue the report because he first wanted to know what was causing the bacteria problem and have a plan in place to deal with it. He said economic considerations — some DNR officials have said they delayed release because they worried it would hurt tourism at the lake — never entered into his decision.

But the version of events he told the newspaper does not end questions about the role of Gov. Jay Nixon's office in the controversy. Nixon and the DNR have denied that the governor had any knowledge of the high bacteria levels until several weeks after the test results were available.

Bindbeutel said he met with the governor's office three times in June but didn't raise the E. coli issue until the final meeting on June 23.

He twice requested reports on the issue, which some DNR employees thought he meant to share with the governor's office. But Bindbeutel and some attendees of those first two meetings said the topic never came up.

"I said, 'Don't do this press release,'" Bindbeutel said. "From then on it was me working on the action plan and monitoring to make sure there wasn't a Sunshine Law request" for the information.

"I was reaching too high and should have paid attention to a basic notion that the public should know about something like this," he said.

The DNR began receiving requests from the public and the media for the bacteria report, but the attorney general's office said last month those requests didn't make clear they were requesting the information based on the Sunshine Law. The DNR said Wednesday it developed a more streamlined process for requesting information.

DNR officials closed two beaches for much of June after separate tests by state park employees and told the governor's office about those.

Donna Swall, president of the Lake of the Ozarks Water Alliance, which voluntarily collects water samples from the main part of the lake, requested an explanation for the holdup on releasing the data. According to the minutes of a June 12 meeting of the alliance, Bindbeutel told the group "the recent water testing has drawn the attention of the director of DNR as well as Governor Nixon."

Bindbeutel said the minutes are not accurate and that he only meant water quality standards around the state. Jean Kinney, who wrote the minutes, told the newspaper, "whatever I wrote down is what I heard."

At the June 23 meeting, Bindbeutel told John Watson, Nixon's chief of staff, about the bacteria issue and was told to get the information out.

Three days later, DNR released the May 28 numbers as well as the lower June levels, which were now available.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a (R-Columbia) and member of the legislative committee conducting an investigation into the delayed release, said he had trouble believing Bindbeutel, who has since left the DNR after Nixon appointed him to a state commission, acted by himself.

"I would certainly think something that important, the governor's office would want to know about it and probably would be told about it," Schaefer said.

Ken Midkiff, chairman of the Missouri Clean Water Campaign, said Bindbeutel's account was surprising.

"It is still a puzzle to me why Joe would deliberately withhold information that the public should have known," he said. "I really feel like he is taking the fall for higher-ups and he was ordered to withhold the information and, being a good soldier, he did. I can't prove that."

Members of the committee also expressed frustration, saying some of the documents obtained by the Star appear more detailed than what they've been given by DNR and that they've still not been able to interview some DNR staff because the agency wants its attorney present.

DNR Director Mark Templeton said he believes the department is close to working out the details of those interviews and is trying to resolve issues over the documents.


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