The Missouri House has given first-round approval to a bill Attorney General Josh Hawley says would give him authority to adequately investigate open records violations.
The measure would give the attorney general subpoena power to question those accused of violating the state’s Sunshine Law which requires transparency in the conduct of public business.
Hawley exonerated the office of Governor Eric Greitens of wrongdoing in its use of an app that erases text messages after they’re received.
When investigating accusations that Greitens and executive branch personnel had conducted state business using the app, Hawley said he was stymied in efforts to gather evidence.
Democrats slammed Hawley for not even trying to interview Greitens during his investigation of the governor’s use of the app, known as Confide.
The probe was handled by Deputy Counsel Darrell Moore in the attorney general’s office. He said that Greitens’ staff indicated they could use executive privilege to block any discussion about the Confide app with the attorney general’s office.
Hawley contends that having subpoena power would go a long way in dashing claims of executive privilege, and would enhance his ability to prosecute violations of the Sunshine Law.
“We have subpoena power under Chapter 407 of Missouri statute, something that we did not have, and do not have in the sunshine context,” Hawley said. “We need subpoena power in the sunshine context, which gives us the power to actually compel people to cooperate, even if they don’t want to.”
Under the proposal, a state agency or department that knowingly violated the Sunshine Law would be subject to a fine of up to $10,000, plus attorney’s fees. If the court found that there was a violation, but it was not made knowingly, a civil penalty of up to $1,000 could be imposed. Knowing violations of the Sunshine Law would be classified as a Class B misdemeanor.
Two identical proposals were filed to give the attorney general subpoena power while investigating alleged Sunshine Law violations, one from Representative David Gregory, R-St. Louis, and the other from Representative Jean Evans, R-Manchester.
Gregory’s measure received initial approval in the House Tuesday. One more vote will have to be taken before the measure can move to the Senate in the final month of the legislative session.
The proposal has received vocal support from Hawley as well groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, Missouri Press Association, Missouri Broadcasters Association and the Missouri Sunshine Coalition.
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