Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway was right when she said government agencies can’t abandon their responsibility to maintain records.
But in Missouri, skirting accountability seems to have become the norm — not the exception.
Former Gov. Eric Greitens’ penchant for secrecy and his use of self-deleting apps have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills.
The tab so far to defend Greitens’ use of the self-deleting text message app Confide: a whopping $366,000. And the price tag continues to grow under successor Mike Parson.
As it turns out, governing in secret is a pricey — and wrong-headed — proposition.
In a letter posted to the auditor’s website and sent to county governments and municipalities around the state, Galloway asked cities and counties to prohibit officials and employees from using applications or programs that destroy messages pertaining to public business.
“These applications allow for public business to be conducted in secret and prevent taxpayers from holding government accountable,” Galloway wrote.
Several local governments in the Kansas City area told The Star Editorial Board that they discourage the use of such apps. But none has written policies prohibiting the practice.
Which raises the question: How serious are government officials about ensuring transparency?
Not only is public officials’ use of self-destroying apps unethical, it’s also a violation of state statute. Under Missouri law, texts, emails or electronically stored records pertaining to official public business must be retained.
Greitens’ case serves as a cautionary tale that destroying official records could prove to be an expensive legal morass.
In Kansas City, Mayor Quinton Lucas says his office does not condone the use of self-destructing apps.
“I have no interest in any program like that,” Lucas said.
Raytown City Administrator Damon Hodges said the city’s policy for electronic communication and internet usage encourages transparency.
“We stress the use of e-mail while conducting official business,” he said.
City officials in Blue Springs, Independence and Lee’s Summit said they have no official policy restricting the use of such apps. Neither do other governmental agencies in Jackson, Cass, Clay and Platte counties.
Dan Ross, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League, said Galloway’s guidance underscores existing law and called this a nonissue.
“Cities are well aware of record retention laws,” he said.
But are they?
A 2017 lawsuit contends that Greitens’ office used Confide to avoid Missouri’s open records laws.
Greitens resigned last year amid several legal and ethical claims. Parson, the former lieutenant governor, replaced him.
Attorneys billed taxpayers more than $200,000 while Greitens was in office. Another $161,000 has been spent on legal fees since Parson took over in June 2018.
Greitens’ administration negotiated the legal defense agreement with Bryan Cave, a Kansas City-based law firm. But the legal battle continues on Parson’s watch.
The former governor admitted that he used Confide to communicate with aides but denied running afoul of the law.
From 2014 to 2018, the Missouri State Highway Patrol used a similar app called Silent Phone. Greitens’ staff also used Silent Phone in 2017.
Missourians expect government to be open and honest when conducting public business, as Galloway said in her letter.
Galloway, a Democrat is challenging Parson, a Republican, in the 2020 governor’s race. But transparency and open government shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
Enacting measures to ensure that messages or any other communications are retained is vital to meet record-keeping obligations.
Simply discouraging the use of self-deleting app or assuming that officials know what’s expected of them is not sufficient.
“Banning self-destructing text messaging by public entities, officials and employees is another step to ensuring transparency, and is the best antidote to any perceived or actual government impropriety,” Galloway wrote.
In Missouri, a lot of local, county and state government entities still have work to do on that front.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.