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Mo. gov.'s office settles e-mail deletion lawsuit

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The governor's office will provide free copies of e-mails to investigators to settle a lawsuit that accused Gov. Matt Blunt and other officials of "knowingly and purposely" violating the state's open-records law by denying access to the documents.

Under the deal announced in Cole County Circuit Court on Tuesday, the Republican governor admitted no wrongdoing, was dismissed from the case and was shielded from having the lawsuit refiled against him.

Blunt's office agreed to hand over tens of thousands of pages of e-mails from Aug. 17, 2007, through Oct. 31, 2007, and allowed investigators appointed by Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon to inspect the office.

The e-mails to be turned over are from the state accounts of Blunt and five current or former administration officials. The same e-mail records were released last month to news organizations that had sought them under Missouri's open record laws.

In a joint statement released after Tuesday's hearing, the court-appointed attorneys and a lawyer representing Blunt said the agreement is a "comprehensive settlement of all the issues pertaining to the governor and his office."

"Both parties agree, settlement of this matter is in the best interests of the citizens of the State of Missouri and the parties," attorneys for both sides said in a written statement.

The e-mail lawsuit was scheduled for trial Jan. 5 -- seven days before Blunt leaves office. A court hearing is set for that day should anyone involved in the case want to object to the settlement.

Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said the settlement ends a "13-month-long legal fiasco" and accused investigators of timing the agreement around the holidays so that it would be unnoticed.

"Finally after making false accusation after false accusation and wasting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, the e-mail team brings this political case to a conclusion two days before Christmas," Robinson said.

Blunt's former chief of staff, Ed Martin, who this month had been added as a defendant in the case, called the probe "politically motivated."

Nixon appointed special investigators in November 2007 to look into whether Blunt's office was complying with e-mail retention laws. But a Cole County judge ruled that the investigators didn't have standing to sue for access to governor's office e-mail records and selected two special assistant attorneys general to continue the case.

The settlement agreement announced Tuesday gives Nixon's investigators until Jan. 26 to file any written reports about document retention practices in the governor's office. Before public disclosure of those findings, Blunt's attorneys must receive an advance copy to attach a rebuttal by Jan. 30.

The controversy over e-mail deletions in Blunt's office began in September 2007, when the Springfield News-Leader said it had requested e-mail communications between the governor's office and anti-abortion interests but was told the e-mails didn't exist.

As an explanation, a Blunt spokesman said governor's office employees regularly deleted e-mails and denied they needed to be retained as public records -- an assertion from which the office later backed off. Blunt also said he routinely deleted e-mails and the office had no policy governing when to retain e-mails.

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.

About the same time the media were questioning Blunt's e-mail policies, records show that Scott Eckersley, then a legal counsel to the governor, was assigned to update the office's Sunshine Law policy. On Sept. 14, 2007, he sent an e-mail to several top Blunt officials recommending they respond to the media by acknowledging that e-mails can be public records that must be retained; he was fired two weeks later.

Eckersley has filed a separate wrongful termination and defamation lawsuit against Blunt and several past and present officials. He pledged Tuesday to continue his suit.

"Any release of public records is a victory for us," said Eckersley, now a student at the University of Southern California. "I hope the original investigators' report will list the numerous violations that were uncovered."

Blunt officials have said Eckersley was fired for justifiable reasons unrelated to e-mails, including using state resources to perform a greater amount of private-sector work than he had been approved to do. The documents previously released by the governor's office also showed Eckersley had done private-sector work and occasionally had been late to work.

State records show that the legal wrangling over e-mails and defending against Eckersley's suit has cost the state about $1 million.

The Associated Press, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Kansas City Star joined the e-mail lawsuit to pursue separate requests for e-mail records made under Missouri's open records laws. Blunt's office agreed in October to provide the news outlets with more than 60,000 pages of e-mails and released an additional 850 pages last week that the governor's office initially classified as exempt from disclosure.

An additional 180 e-mails sought by the media consortium are still being withheld.


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