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Judge spares Gov. Nixon's staff from testifying about driver's licenses

Thursday, June 27, 2013 | 5:33 p.m. CDT; updated 8:39 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 27, 2013

JEFFERSON CITY — A judge spared subpoenaed members of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's administration from testifying before a Missouri House panel Thursday as top Republican lawmakers suggested the governor was trying to stonewall an investigation into whether officials are trying to comply with a federal proof-of-identity law.

Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green issued a preliminary order blocking the House investigatory committee from proceeding with the subpoenas, which had been issued late Wednesday with a demand to appear Thursday morning before the committee. The Nixon administration employees had ignored the demand.

House Speaker Tim Jones, who issued the subpoenas, expressed outrage that they had been rebuffed by five current members of Nixon's administration and a former Cabinet official whom Nixon has since appointed to an administrative judge position.

"Why is the governor stonewalling? What is he afraid of? What is he hiding?" said Jones, R-Eureka. "The more that he objects, the more Missourians should wonder: Why does the governor not want to come forward and have his bureaucrats testify and have the truth be told on this?"

The panel of legislators and law enforcement officials appointed by Jones is looking into whether state officials tried to implement provisions of the 2005 federal Real ID Act, despite a 2009 state law forbidding compliance with the proof-of-identity law.

The federal anti-terrorism law set stringent requirements for photo identification cards to be used to board commercial flights or enter federal buildings. But some states believe the federal government is exceeding its authority, and the Missouri Legislature is one of several that have opposed its implementation.

In December, Missouri's Department of Revenue started making electronic copies of personal documents — such as birth certificates — that applicants must show to obtain driver's licenses and state identification cards. The retention of such documents is one of the many federal standards under the Real ID Act, but officials in Nixon's administration have insisted it's an anti-fraud measure taken at their own initiative.

The judge did not provide a written reason Thursday explaining why he blocked the committee from enforcing the subpoenas, but he indicated the decision was temporary. He directed attorneys for the House committee to file court documents supporting the subpoenas by July 28.

A Nixon spokesman declined to comment about Thursday's legal action.

The subpoenas target Nixon Policy Director Jeff Harris, Administration Commissioner Doug Nelson, Senior Legal and Policy Adviser Chris Pieper, Deputy Chief of Staff Peter Lyskowski and Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs Kristy Manning — all of whom at some point served as a liaison between the governor's office and Revenue Department. Also subpoenaed was Alana Barragan-Scott, the former Revenue Department director whom Nixon appointed in December to the Administrative Hearing Commission.

All of the employees were represented in court by James McAdams, a former attorney general's office employee who now is the deputy director and general counsel of the state insurance department, which is under Nixon's control.

McAdams argued in court documents that the subpoenas were unreasonably burdensome because of their short notice and the fact that they would be detracting employees from important tasks, such as reviewing budget bills and legislation pending before Nixon. He said Barragan-Scott was scheduled to preside over an administrative hearing Thursday.

He also argued that the House panel was not a true legislative committee — because it includes some non-lawmakers and a disproportionately small number of Democrats — and thus could not hear testimony compelled under a subpoena by the House speaker.

Jones called those "frivolous objections."

The subpoenas are "absolutely within the lawful investigatory power of any committee of the House. This one is no different," he said.

Officials from the Department of Revenue, which is part of Nixon's administration, have voluntarily testified before the House panel. They have insisted the agency has not tried to comply with the Real ID Act, despite memos to the federal government in which Revenue Department officials asserted that Missouri's licensing procedures are comparable to many of the provisions of Real ID.

Jones and several committee members said Thursday that it appears officials have violated the state law against implementing the federal law.

"It's our belief that there will be evidence that this was directly approved by Gov. Nixon," said committee member Russ Oliver, the Stoddard County prosecutor who filed a suit as a private attorney earlier this year against the new license procedures.

It's possible that governor's office employees could still agree to a later date on which they would voluntarily testify before the panel. But the committee chairman, Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, said tensions could continue to grow.

"I'd rather not subpoena the governor just yet," he said. But "if we have to, we will."


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