Star sues Clay County for public records from ‘illegal, secret meeting,’ hidden bills

The Kansas City Star has filed a civil lawsuit alleging Clay County officials knowingly and purposefully violated the Missouri Sunshine Law by denying a reporter’s request for copies of bills it paid to a private law firm.

The Star, through its parent company, Cypress Media, Inc. filed the lawsuit Monday in Clay County Circuit Court.

At issue in the suit are public records pertaining to allegations that the Clay County Commission held a secret, illegal meeting in June 2016 when it agreed to hire the Kansas City law firm Spencer Fane.

During a June 6, 2016, meeting the commission went into a closed session, allegedly to discuss hiring the law firm to handle public records requests for the county. No minutes were recorded or were available to reflect the hiring of the law firm, the lawsuit alleges.

The Star alleges that commissioners violated Missouri Sunshine Law because no prior notice for the closed session was given.

Steve Vockrodt, an investigative reporter for The Star, sent an open records request to the Clay County Clerk in February for billing statements it received from Spencer Fane.

Vockrodt said he wanted to know how much Clay County was paying the law firm and what the county was getting for its money, according to the lawsuit.

In response to Vockrodt’s request, attorney W. Joseph Hatley of Spencer Fane said the billing statements contained privileged information. The Star would have to pay $4,200 for the law firm to review the bills to determine what parts, if any, he would be able to hand over.

Hatley also said The Star would have to pay him to do that because he could not charge Clay County for it. He said that would violate the Hancock Amendment, a provision of the Missouri Constitution.

The Hancock Amendment prevents the state from imposing unfunded mandates on local governments.

Vockrodt asked Hatley for the legal opinion that supported his claim and to explain how he arrived at the $4,200 estimate. He also said Clay County — not The Star — was obligated to pay the cost for reviewing the invoices.

Hatley wrote: “I’m not engaging with you in a legal debate,” and said that he would only discuss the matter with The Star’s attorneys.

Through its attorney Bernard Rhodes, The Star responded that the request did not violate the Hancock Amendment and questioned whether the price Hatley had quoted them was “obviously inflated,” as part of a “concerted effort to hide your firm’s bills from public scrutiny.”

Refusing to fulfill Vockrodt’s open records request was a violation of the Missouri Sunshine Law, according to the lawsuit. Rhodes cited a recent ruling by a Missouri judge that required the city of Raytown to pay $42,000 in attorney’s fees for violating the Sunshine Law.

Hatley said the $4,200 estimate was based on how long it would take him to read each page of his law firm’s own invoices. Hatley said it would take him a day and a half to read 45 pages, according to The Star’s lawsuit.

Spencer Fane later provided Rhodes with copies of the fully redacted bills.

Rhodes wrote back to Hatley and said he was able to review all of the law firm’s invoices “during a single episode of NCIS: New Orleans, which included fast-forwarding through the commercials.” Rhodes said that was in stark contrast to the day and a half Hatley claimed he needed to review the same information.

“It is obvious your inflated estimate is merely part of a purposeful, concerted effort to hide your billing entries from Mr. Vockrodt, and by extension, readers of The Kansas City Star.”

Hatley did not respond to Rhodes’ letter, the lawsuit alleged.

The Star is seeking a judge to order Clay County to pay a civil penalty and its attorneys’ fees.

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Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.