Analysis: Nixon stayed in dark about E. coli for months

Sunday, October 4, 2009 | 4:15 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Aides for Gov. Jay Nixon knew about bacteria problems at the Lake of the Ozarks, but Missouri's chief executive apparently governed in the dark for nearly two months before learning about the issue from the media.

Information about E. coli at the lake trickled from the Department of the Natural Resources into the governor's office. At least one Cabinet member, two gubernatorial aides and Nixon's chief of staff knew something was up, but the governor did not.

It is an example of a widespread communication failure in Nixon's administration, or it's a possible example of plausible deniability, in which top officials are shielded from potentially damaging or embarrassing information.

The issue started in May when water samples were taken from the Lake of the Ozarks. Results from one of those tests was not released to the public until late June. Nixon apparently learned what was happening after reading a mid-July article in The Kansas City Star.

Here is how it happened:

On May 18, the Department of Natural Resources tested water at two public beaches in the Lake of the Ozarks and discovered bacteria was high at one of them. On May 26, samples were taken elsewhere from the lake for a different water testing program funded by Ameren Corp. Then on May 27, more beach samples were taken that also found high bacteria levels at one beach.

The bacteria-infested beach was not closed — although the agency later told Nixon it had been.

When results came from the Ameren-funded testing, Nixon aide Jeff Mazur was told on May 29 about the E. coli. But that was where the information stayed.

Mazur, who reviews most state agency news releases before distribution, said last week he told no one else in the governor's office. Nixon communications director Jack Cardetti — who told reporters throughout the summer that no one in the governor's knew about the E. coli results until June 23 — acknowledged that he was aware of Mazur's conversation but not the details of it.

Mazur said he didn't believe the information rose to the level of telling others in the governor's office.

"I didn't feel as though I had anything to share. I didn't have any numbers. I didn't have any paper. I didn't have any tangible results," Mazur said.

Meanwhile, leaders within the Department of Natural Resources discussed how to handle reporting the results from the May 26 tests. Susanne Medley, then the department's communications director, said she met June 1 with Director Mark Templeton and Deputy Director Joe Bindbeutel.

On June 4, Bindbeutel met in the governor's office with a utility industry trade group and a different Nixon aide. Before that meeting, Bindbeutel sought documents about E. coli testing, but the governor's office has said the topic never came up.

A day later, the Department of Natural Resources closed it first beach at the Lake of the Ozarks after another round of testing showed high bacteria levels. It reopened June 12 and closed again for a week beginning June 18. A second beach was closed on June 12 and reopened July 2.

Those beach closings were presented with little fanfare. A sign was placed at the park, and the announcement was posted to an obscure section of the department's Web site.

The E. coli issue re-entered Nixon's office on June 23, but again it didn't reach the governor. During a regularly scheduled meeting with DNR leaders, Nixon's chief of staff John Watson was told E. coli test results from a month earlier had not been released.

Watson said he told DNR to release the results but kept the information to himself, telling reporters last week that he never mentioned the discussion to Nixon.

"It was clearly in a strike zone of issues that I was very comfortable that I knew what the governor's position on that would be. And so that direction was an easy call from my chair," Watson said.

In fact, Watson said he believes the first time Nixon learned about the E. coli tests was from The Star nearly a month later.

Only recently has Nixon taken action. In the past two weeks, Nixon traveled to the Lake of the Ozarks to announce a sweeping plan to improve water quality, admitted breakdowns in his own office and reprimanded the Department of Natural Resources director in front of reporters.

George Connor, the chairman of the political science department at Missouri State University, said it seems Nixon either was protected from damaging information or was trying not to micromanage and relied on aides who tripped up.

"It's kind of the perfect storm of miscommunication," Connor said. "It seems that everything that could go wrong — in terms of the number of people that were involved in this and didn't say anything and the governor's reaction that we're going to clean up the lake more — really has pushed them into a corner."

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