A lingering cloud over the Blunt Administration might be removed just prior to Governor Blunt’s last days in office. A settlement has been reached to resolve a lawsuit filed over e-mails.
The lawsuit contended the Blunt Administration violated state records retention and disclosure laws by destroying e-mail correspondence.
Special Assistant Attorney General Joe Maxwell says investigators have reached an agreement with the governor’s office that allows access to the e-mails in dispute and a method to determine whether the remaining 180 e-mails in question are public documents. Maxwell says the settlement also dismisses Blunt, as an individual, from the lawsuit.
Attorney Jim Meadows represented Governor Blunt and says the settlement takes Blunt out of the dispute and doesn’t allow any future lawsuit to be filed against him.
What lies ahead is resolution. Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan has scheduled a hearing January 5th, in which he is expected to accept the settlement. Then, the team that began the investigation will have three weeks to file its report to be issued with a response from the governor.
Under the settlement, retired Circuit Judge Frank Connelly will decide whether the 180 e-mails are public documents. Callahan appointed Connelly as a Special Master assigned to the dispute. Connelly also will have "unfettered access" to material stored on back-up tapes.
Governor Blunt’s office will provide e-mails without cost to the investigative team, former State Highway Patrol officials Mel Fischer and Rick Wilhoit who will have until January 26 th to file a written report. The governor’s office will be allowed to respond.
Questions about how the Blunt Administration managed e-mail correspondence first arose in September of 2007. The Springfield News Leader reported it had requested electronic communication between the governor’s office and anti-abortion interest groups. The governor’s office told the paper the e-mails didn’t exist. The office contended it didn’t have to retain e-mails, though state records retention laws treat electronic correspondence the same as paper correspondence.
The controversy escalated upon the firing of Scott Eckersley as legal counsel to the governor. Eckersley charged that he was fired, because he raised objections to the handling of e-mails, advising top officials within the office that the office policy violated the Missouri Sunshine Law. The governor’s office and the governor himself strenuously denied the accusation, saying he was fired for unrelated reasons. Eckersley has filed a separate lawsuit, contending he was wrongfully fired and defamed by the administration.
Blunt leaves office January 12th, when Governor-elect Jay Nixon, the state Attorney General, is inaugurated.