State Attorney General Josh Hawley, R, wants public agencies and officials to pay the price if they get rid of government records that are required to be kept under Missouri’s Sunshine Law. He wants the legislature to change state law to include penalties against them by up to one year in prison, as much as a $2,000 fine or both.
“We think that the records retention penalties should mirror the sunshine penalties because they are so closely related,” says Hawley. “I bet most people if you told them it’s technically not a violation of the Sunshine Law not to retain a record you’re supposed to, I suspect most people would say that doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Hawley goes on to say his office has no authority to issue subpoenas for suspected cases of open records and retention law violations. The state’s top prosecutor is asking the legislature to give his office this standard law enforcement tool.
“Enforcers can ask, and they can ask vigorously but there is no way to compel any subject of a review to actually cooperate with this office or with enforcement,” says Hawley. “We think there should be such power. This office has subpoena power in other contexts.”
Hawley has opened a review of fellow Republican Governor Eric Greitens’ office for suspected use of a cell phone app that erases texts and prevents you from printing or taking a screenshot of such messages. Hawley’s inquiry includes examining if the technology is being used for government purposes and whether using a personal cell phone for state business exempts staffers from following open records laws.
“I think it has become abundantly clear, certainly to this office, that we need to take steps to strengthen the enforcement of the Sunshine Law. There’s some very common sense steps that can be taken this year by the legislature,” says Hawley.
He says his proposed changes do not include banning the use of technology in government business that instantly destroys texts after they are read. Hawley does say he supports changing open records laws to reflect modern technology advancements, but says he wants to focus on the enforcement mechanism and build from there.
The attorney general also wants the legislature’s blessing to create a division within his office that would be authorized to handle cases involving potential open records violations. Unlike his office, which defends the state agencies in court, the separate division would be able to operate without potential conflicts of interest. Hawley says the division could be made up of existing staff levels.