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Missing records at fire district prompt inquiry

A Sunshine Law request uncovers that the papers have been missing for two years.
Sunday, February 25, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:39 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The Boone County Fire Protection District asked the Columbia Police Department last week to investigate the possible theft of documents from the fire district’s headquarters two years ago.

The documents were related to a federal grant the fire district received between 1998 and 2002 from the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program. The purpose of the grant was to establish a 30-station computer lab at Midway Heights Elementary School to be used for training fire personnel, among other things.

Scott Olsen, fire district assistant chief, said the disappearance was not reported earlier because district administrators had no way to know the documents were stolen.

“What happened to the documents, I wasn’t sure of, at that point in time, back in 2005,” he said.

Olsen acknowledged that the documents “could have been put somewhere else,” moved or inadvertently thrown away. “I certainly am not going to make an allegation to the police department or to the FBI that the documents were stolen” without more evidence, he said.

The call for a police investigation was prompted by a request for the documents that was filed by the Missourian in January, Olsen said. Thursday’s police report indicates that the documents were reported stolen rather than simply missing.

According to the police report, Olsen told Jeff Forck of the Columbia Police Department that access to the information was limited to only five people: Fire Chief Steve Paulsell; former Assistant Chief Sharon Curry; Ken Hines, a fire district employee who is on leave and serving with the Coast Guard; and Rob Brown and Bruce Piringer, who were fired from the district in August 2005.

Olsen said he didn’t question Brown and Piringer about the missing documents.

“It wasn’t until later that we felt that maybe they might have been taken by someone,” he said. “To go ask them where (the documents) were would be almost accusatory. They were no longer members of the fire district.”

Piringer said restricted documents were kept in three places at the fire district: Curry’s office, a walk-in safe and locked cabinets in what he called the copy room. He said he knew of no other storage facilities.

Piringer said Curry’s office was restricted only to Curry, Paulsell and possibly the bookkeeper, Andrea Meinhart, who resigned last summer.

Piringer also said he did not have general access to the walk-in safe.

“The only access I had, somebody else had to open up that safe for me to get into it,” he said.

However, Piringer said, the copy room was open to “just about anybody.”

Olsen said the documents were already missing when the grant and an allegation that he falsified federal documents related to the grant were the subject of an FBI investigation. Olsen said the FBI told the fire district that “they saw no issues (with the fire district) and weren’t going to pursue it any further.”

But Jeff Lanza of the FBI said an investigation into the district was ongoing, although he would not be specific about what was being investigated.

The police investigation of the missing documents was prompted by an open records — or “Sunshine Law” — request filed by the Missourian in January, representatives of the Columbia Police Department and the fire district said.

On Jan. 16, a request was sent to the fire district from the Missourian asking for three documents. One of the documents requested was a final evaluation report for the technology grant.

The Missourian has been looking into how the fire district spent the $168,745 awarded to the district by the Commerce Department.

When the specific request was made, Olsen said he surmised that the documents probably had been stolen and given to the Missourian because the information in the request was so specific.

But the Missourian found the information online through a Google search of the grant program’s name. The results of that search indicated that it had since been renamed the Technology Opportunities Program. Another Google search yielded the TOP site, which had a grants database containing the first eight pages of the fire district’s grant evaluation report. A PDF file of those pages was online at ntiaotiant2.ntia.doc.gov/top/docs/eval/pdf/296098008e.pdf.

The Sunshine request was then made to obtain the rest of the 33-page document.

On Thursday, Olsen said he was unaware the documents were available online.

Jeff Forck of the Columbia Police Department began looking into the matter and called the Missourian.

Forck said a number of people were under investigation in connection with the missing documents but would not disclose who they were. He said the newspaper was not suspected of stealing the documents.

The other documents the fire district was asked to give the Missourian in the Jan. 16 request were a copy of Fire Chief Steve Paulsell’s employment contract and copies of the canceled checks used to pay for the Perseverance Endowment statue that stands in front of fire district headquarters.

None of the requested documents has been provided.

According to the Missouri Sunshine Law, publicly funded agencies must respond to such a request within three business days.

Jean Maneke, legal counsel for the Missouri Press Association, said that when a public institution can’t fulfill a request within that time period, it must give a date by which the records will be provided.

Fire district Division Chief Gale Blomenkamp responded to the initial request with a letter from Curry, who also served as the custodian of records. The letter said that Curry was out of town and would respond to the request when she returned on Jan. 29.

After Curry’s resignation on Feb. 9, the Missourian informed Blomenkamp that the Open Records request was pending. Blomenkamp responded in an e-mail: “As a result of Chief Curry’s resignation, we are short staffed and will fill your request as time permits.”

A public institution must maintain a custodian of records, Maneke said.

“The law says that there must be a custodian of records,” she said. “They always, at any point in time, have to have a keeper of records.”

The law does not say how long that position can be left vacant.

The fire district’s attorney, Jeff Parshall, said he wasn’t sure of the specific law.

“I’m not saying (having no custodian of records) is a violation of the Sunshine Law,” Parshall said. “I haven’t looked at that particular matter. And the board is in the process of filling the position.”

Fire board member John Gordon said he didn’t know when the fire district would have a new custodian of records. “We’re still looking at those job descriptions” to replace Curry, he said.


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