By Claire in News Posted January 20, 2019
Originally published by columnist Tony Messenger in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on January 20, 2019
Roll over in your grave, Willard Duncan Vandiver.
Missouri is the Show-Me State no more.
Vandiver is the former U.S. Congressman who in a speech in 1899 declared:
“I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
The speech is widely credited as being the origin of the sayingthat has long been Missouri’s unofficial slogan. The implication is that it takes more than fancy words from politicians to cajole Missourians. We want to see evidence. We want public accountability.
For some elected officials, that’s no longer true.
On Tuesday, the Missouri House, controlled by a veto-proof Republican majority, voted to establish a new rule that would allow elected representatives to keep their records shielded from prying eyes. This follows a November vote in the state in which 62 percent of Missourians enshrined into the state’s constitution a new provision that applies the Sunshine Law to state lawmakers. In effect, House Republicans raised their collective middle fingers and pointed them at voters.
“You want us to Show You our work?” they said. “No thank you.”
The move came on the same day that a different branch of government in Missouri stood up for the Sunshine Law, which allows citizens to hold elected officials accountable by making their work a matter of public record. The Court of Appeals, Western District, upheld a previous decision by Cole County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Joyce to fine former Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson for multiple violations of the Sunshine Law. That case will end up costing taxpayers $36,000 in fines and attorneys’ fees.
Richardson, who lost his re-election bid in a GOP primary last August, had been found to have “knowingly and purposefully” violated the Sunshine Law in refusing to hand over public documents sought by attorney Aaron Malin. Malin, along with David Roland of the Freedom Center of Missouri, have filed numerous similar lawsuits across the state alleging multiple violations of the Sunshine Law. They have won against prosecutors, sheriff’s departments and police departments.
In Missouri, these days, far too many public officials believe the people’s records are made to be hidden, not shared.
Just a week or so before the House decided to ignore state law and the constitution, the Department of Health and Senior Services decided, for instance, that Missourians had no right to know which individuals or businesses will be operating the nascent medical marijuana industry in Missouri. The department denied Sunshine Law requests filed by me and another Post-Dispatch reporter to see the “pre-application forms” of those people or companies who have plopped down thousands of dollars to get in line to operate what could end up being multi-million-dollar businesses, with licenses handed out by state regulators. The office of Gov. Mike Parson said it supports the decision by DHSS officials to keep taxpayers in the dark.
The Post-Dispatch has protested the decision. But it is part of a growing body of evidence that in Missouri, when residents ask their public officials to “show-me” the records, the answer is all-too-often a resounding no.
Even when the answer is yes, it often comes with a caveat.
Later this year, a Sunshine Law case against the University of Missouri is scheduled to go to trial. In that case, an animal rights group sought records related to the testing of animals, and the university’s response was to ask for $80,000.
Last year, when I wanted to see the records behind a commendation St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar gave to the officers who police MetroLink, the department wanted $5,000. There are dozens of similar examples across the state.
Because the Missouri Sunshine Law sets a high bar for lawyers to win back their fees in such cases, public officials know that more often than not, the strategy of charging an exorbitant amount of money to search for records has a chilling effect on the process of obtaining them.
That leaves the public in the dark, which is what the Missouri House voted to do this week.
It’s a travesty, says lawyer Mark Pedroli of Clayton. He’s still embroiled in a Sunshine Law case of his own, seeking records (and a deposition) from former Gov. Eric Greitens about the governor’s use of the text-destroying app Confide. That lawsuit has uncovered widespread use of the app in the Greitens administration, which during its short reign became infamous for its disregard for public accountability laws.
“Missouri elected representatives are not high priests entitled to privileged communications with constituents,” Pedroli tweeted after the House’s action. “They don’t want you to see their emails/texts with their donors, maybe even dark money donors demanding favors.”
Welcome to Missouri, the State of Redaction.