E-mails show Blunt's office pressed patrol to criticize Nixon

Friday, July 20, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY (AP) -- After determining in a 2,000-page report that there were no criminal suspects in the Taum Sauk reservoir collapse, the Missouri State Highway Patrol was pressured by Gov. Matt Blunt's staff last month to emphasize that Attorney General Jay Nixon had not filed criminal charges, a newspaper reported.

E-mails obtained by The Kansas City Star indicate Blunt's office was not pleased with the patrol's public statements about the investigation and wanted emphasize the decision by Nixon -- Blunt's likely opponent in the 2008 gubernatorial election -- to not file charges.

"The e-mails show the governor used the Highway Patrol not as a law enforcement agency but as a political arm of his administration," said Missouri Democratic Party spokesman Jack Cardetti.

But Blunt's chief of staff, Ed Martin, said the governor's office was simply helping the patrol, which is a part of the Department of Public Safety.

"I am very comfortable that what we were trying to do was help the Department of Public Safety articulate a concern they had," Martin said. "Did we encourage them? Sure, but I don't think we stepped over any bounds."

Ameren Corp. used the mountaintop Taum Sauk reservoir to power its hydroelectric plant in southeast Missouri. The reservoir collapsed just before dawn Dec. 14, 2005, sending more than 1 billion gallons of water rushing over the popular Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park below.

The campground was empty, but the park superintendent and his family were injured while being swept away in the flood.

In an April report detailing its investigation, the Highway Patrol concluded that someone had moved sensors at the reservoir higher so they wouldn't be tripped as often by high water levels and cause disruptions in production of electricity.

In its report, the patrol said Ameren employees and contractors could not recall who had adjusted the sensors in December 2004 -- a year before the collapse -- but did identify two employees who removed the sensors shortly after the collapse.

Ameren officials said the sensors were removed to determine why they didn't work.

The Highway Patrol report concluded, "There is no suspect in this investigation, at this point in time."

Nixon announced in May that he would not file criminal charges, based on the patrol's report that found no evidence of a crime.

During the time the patrol was conducting its investigation, Blunt's office and the Missouri Republican Party repeatedly attacked Nixon because his campaign had accepted $19,000 in indirect contributions from Ameren in 2006 while the probe was under way.

Nixon returned the money, but Martin and other Blunt officials said the attorney general was compromised as a prosecutor.

After two patrol spokesmen repeated in early June that no crimes had been committed in the reservoir collapse, Blunt administration officials made it clear in e-mails that they were not happy with the way the patrol was portraying the case.

On June 5, Blunt's top spokesman Rich Chrismer sent patrol spokesman Capt. Tim Hull an e-mail saying he wanted to talk about a news article in which Hull is quoted saying the patrol found no criminal wrongdoing.

The next day, Department of Public Safety director Mark James sent an e-mail to Highway Patrol assistant superintendent Lt. Col. Richard Coffey indicating growing dissatisfaction in Blunt's office with how the patrol dealt with the Taum Sauk case.

Later that day, Coffey responded with an e-mail saying Hull "apologized profusely if there had been any negative inference about our reports..."

James responded: "I think the statement they want to establish is, `It's his (Nixon's) job to decide whether to prosecute and not the patrol's."'

On June 7, Chrismer e-mailed James a draft of a statement attributed to patrol superintendent, Col. James Keathly, who was in Colorado at the time.

"Below is the draft everyone agreed to last night," Chrismer wrote. "We need it to go out this morning....Also, the patrol should let the statement stand for itself."

The draft was circulated among Blunt's office and highway patrol officials for input. When the statement was finished to everyone's satisfaction, Chrismer sent another e-mail to James that said: "They know to let the statement speak for itself, correct?"

James forwarded Chrismer's message to patrol staff, adding: "Everybody cool on the final orders, right? Hit the send button and take the phone off the hook."

The statement released by the patrol June 7 appears to reinforce a news release issued by Republicans the same day that argued Nixon should use his subpoena power to determine "the identity of the Ameren employee, and potential suspect, who removed critical evidence from the scene of a disaster."

Frustrated by the accusations, Ameren released a statement of its own that day that noted the company in 2006 provided the names of the employees who moved the water level sensors after the collapse.

The company denied there was any criminal tampering with evidence, and that the Highway Patrol earlier had agreed that Ameren was cooperating fully with the investigation.

James later acknowledged to The Kansas City Star that the patrol's statement was in collaboration with the governor's office.

Chrismer said James had asked for his help and that the idea for the statement had originated with the Department of Public Safety.

"I assisted with the draft, but ultimately it was a news release that the Highway Patrol dictated," Chrismer told The Star.

Democrats said explanations about the e-mails don't wash, and that they are clearly part of a coordinated political effort by Blunt's office.

"The job of the Highway Patrol is to protect and serve, not to further the governor's political agenda," said Cardetti, the Democratic spokesman. "The fact that the governor's office is dictating what press releases go out from the patrol and who the patrol can talk to should be alarming to Missouri citizens."

Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com

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