Blunt: Probe into e-mails 'ridiculous'

Thursday, December 11, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Gov. Matt Blunt spoke out Wednesday against an investigation into the e-mail policies of his office while indicating he remains opposed to providing sworn testimony in the case.

Blunt called the investigation "ridiculous," "absurd" and "an utter waste of money."

His statements came a day after a Cole County judge blocked an attempt to take Blunt's deposition by a bipartisan pair of court-appointed assistant attorneys general. The judge said their deposition notice was too broad. A more narrowly tailored request is still possible.

Asked Wednesday if he would be willing to submit to a more limited deposition, Blunt did not rule it out but indicated he remained reluctant to do so.

"As a matter of policy for future governors I don't know that they should be deposed on cases that they don't really have anything to do with or any direct connections," Blunt said.

Blunt said it was the responsibility of others in his office to respond to open-records requests.

Yet the special investigators have focused on Blunt. Their recently updated lawsuit contends Blunt "knowingly and purposely" violated the Sunshine Law by denying access to e-mails and asks a court to impose penalties.

Missouri law allows fines of up to $1,000 against public officials and governmental bodies that "knowingly" violate the Sunshine Law, and up to $5,000 for those found to have "purposely" violated the open-records law.

The e-mail controversy dates to September 2007, when the Springfield News-Leader published a column stating it been told by the governor's office that certain e-mails requested under the Sunshine Law didn't exist -- despite the fact that the newspaper had independently obtained one.

Blunt subsequently said he and his staff routinely delete e-mails. In a September 2007 interview, Blunt said "we don't dictate to each employee how long they're going to keep their e-mails," adding that he didn't believe the office needed a written policy on e-mail retention.

E-mails are public records under Missouri law. Depending on the topic, some can be deleted soon after receipt, others must be kept for three years and some must be saved for the state archives.

Former Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, one of the two appointed investigative attorneys, said Tuesday that the sought-after deposition was aimed at determining whether Blunt was informed his public statements about e-mail retention ran contrary to law, and if so, when he knew that.

A trial is scheduled for Jan. 5 -- one week before Blunt's term as governor ends.

Blunt said Wednesday that he wants to bring the case to a close as quickly as possible, but added that he didn't believe that providing a deposition would accomplish that.

"It is ridiculous, and I think everybody involved in this really ought to be ashamed of themselves that they've allowed hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to be wasted," Blunt said.

When asked if the governor's office also bears responsibility for the escalating costs, Blunt quickly replied: "No."

The e-mail litigation and the defense of a separate lawsuit brought by a fired governor's office attorney has cost the state about $1 million, with the tab still growing. Ex-legal aide Scott Eckersley claims he was wrongly fired and defamed by Blunt and top deputies after trying to draw their attention to e-mail retention requirements and the Sunshine Law.

Blunt's administration contends Eckersley was fired for justifiable reasons, including doing private work with state resources.

Blunt has repeatedly criticized Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon, elected in November to become governor, for initiating the state-sanctioned investigation into Blunt's office.

"The only potential outcome is a $1,000 fine," Blunt said Wednesday. "So we're going to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to prove that what we've been saying all along is correct, so that conceivably there might be a $1,000 fine levied against another taxpayer entity? It's absurd."

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