SPRINGFIELD — It's been three years since Scott Eckersley was fired after asserting that his then-boss, former Gov. Matt Blunt, and others in Blunt's administration should not be deleting certain e-mails because they belonged to the public record.
Now after a $500,000 settlement for a wrongful termination and defamation lawsuit against the state, the former legal adviser in the governor's office is using some of that money to run for a seat long held by Blunt's father, outgoing U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt.
Eckersley, 33, is a long shot running as a Democrat in one of the country's most Republican districts, where voters for more than a decade have elected Roy Blunt with about two-thirds of the vote or greater. But he's betting he can tap into the electorate's anti-Washington sentiments by showing he stood up to a top elected official.
"It is ironic how the whole thing has played out," Eckersley said at his campaign office in Springfield, the Blunts' hometown. "But what a great story to come full circle and show that not only can a whistleblower stand up and make a difference ... (but also) take that experience and pack it up and take it to Washington."
Eckersley's Republican opponent, Billy Long, has far outpaced him in fundraising, with $780,000 in mid-July compared with Eckersley's $116,000, which includes the money Eckersley contributed to his own campaign. Long also said he spent more than a half-million dollars, compared with the roughly $20,000 Eckersley reported spending.
Although he's running as a Democrat, Eckersley shares some Republican views, saying he is independent and wanted to avoid a crowded GOP primary field. He says he would have voted against the federal health care overhaul, that he opposes the bank bailout and federal stimulus, and that he generally opposes abortion.
But it may be hard for Eckersley to seize the anti-Washington reins in the race. Long, a 55-year-old auctioneer from Springfield, defeated two state senators, among others, by touting his business credentials and lack of elected experience. Adopting the slogan "fed up," Long several times said there was enough political experience in Congress to "choke a horse."
Long said he's not paying much attention to Eckersley's narrative and questions the relevance of a years-old state e-mail controversy in a congressional campaign.
"I'm not running for governor. I'm running for Congress, and I think Scott's running for Congress, too," Long said. "So I don't see a place for it."
George Connor, the head of the political science department at Missouri State University in Springfield, said he thinks the e-mail controversy provides Eckersley an interesting talking point, but won't alone give him the votes to beat Long, who won more than 2½ times the votes cast in the entire Democratic primary.
"It's a compelling storyline, but it won't go the distance ... That's a great opening line or closing line: 'Remember I'm the only candidate that stood up to big government.' But it's a very, very, very small story, and it's a story that has two sides," Connor said.
Eckersley was fired from the Missouri governor's office in September 2007 after advising superiors that some government e-mails were public records that must be retained and provided when requested under state open records laws. The advice came after a newspaper column about a request for e-mails eventually led to the governor personally defending the deletion of e-mails and a spokesman asserting state law did not require individual e-mails to be retained.
After Eckersley's firing, the governor's administration released an unsolicited packet to reporters accusing Eckersley of doing private work on state computers, enrolling in a "group sex Internet site," and raising questions about whether he used drugs. Eckersley denied those suggestions and sued in 2008, eventually receiving a settlement in which the state paid Eckersley and his lawyers $500,000.
Shortly after Eckersley came forward with his accusations, Blunt's administration purchased a new state computer system to archive e-mails. More than a year later and after Matt Blunt left office, state investigators appointed by then-Attorney General Jay Nixon concluded his administration wrongly deleted some e-mails. An unsigned written response on behalf of the governor asserted the administration followed Missouri's open records law.
The governor's administration maintained Eckersley was fired for legitimate reasons, and the settlement included no admission of wrongdoing by any party.
The man who fired Eckersley, Blunt chief of staff Ed Martin, is running for Congress as a Republican against Democratic U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan for a St. Louis-area seat. Martin contends he did nothing wrong and that the spat over deleted e-mails was simply an attack on the former governor.