Government & Politics

Greitens’ self-destructing texts inspire call for attorney general investigation

Revelations by The Star that Gov. Eric Greitens (right) uses an app that deletes text messages after they’ve been read outraged Missouri Democrats, who are calling on Attorney General Josh Hawley (left) to open a formal investigation of the governor’s office. In this Nov. 29 photo, Hawley and Greitens flanked U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin as President Donald Trump spoke at a tax reform rally in St. Charles, Mo.
Revelations by The Star that Gov. Eric Greitens (right) uses an app that deletes text messages after they’ve been read outraged Missouri Democrats, who are calling on Attorney General Josh Hawley (left) to open a formal investigation of the governor’s office. In this Nov. 29 photo, Hawley and Greitens flanked U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin as President Donald Trump spoke at a tax reform rally in St. Charles, Mo. AP

Revelations by The Star that Gov. Eric Greitens uses an app that deletes text messages after they’ve been read outraged Missouri Democrats, who are calling on Attorney General Josh Hawley to open a formal investigation of the governor’s office.

They are also vowing to push legislation aimed at ensuring the state’s open records law isn’t being undermined.

On Thursday, The Star reported that Greitens and his senior governmental staff use Confide, an app that destroys a text message after it has been read. The app also prevents someone from saving, forwarding, printing or taking a screenshot of the text message.

Because the app deletes texts automatically after they’ve been read, it is impossible to determine whether the governor and his staff are using it to conduct state business out of view of the public or whether the texts should be considered a public record.

Government transparency advocates raised alarms that the app could be used to subvert the state’s Sunshine Law.

“The Sunshine Law exists to protect the public by requiring their government conducts the people’s business in an open, ethical manner,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. “This is to ensure that the government acts in the interest of the public it was created to serve. When government officials conduct public business in secret, it is a betrayal of the public’s trust.”

Several Democrats have called for Hawley, whose office enforces Missouri’s Sunshine Law, to launch an investigation into Greitens’ use of the text messaging app.

But Hawley’s spokeswoman, Loree Anne Paradise, issued a statement saying the attorney general’s office could not get involved in any Sunshine Law matter pertaining to the governor’s office because the attorney general currently represents the governor in ongoing litigation.

“Our ethical obligations under the Rules of Professional Conduct prevent us from involvement in this matter because the attorney general’s office provides legal representation to the governor,” Paradise said.

In a letter to Hawley’s office Friday afternoon, state Sen. Scott Sifton, a St. Louis Democrat, said the attorney general not only has the legal authority to look into whether the governor’s office is illegally destroying public records, it has an obligation to do so.

Sifton noted that former Attorney General Jay Nixon’s office conducted an investigation into the electronic record retention practices of then-Gov. Matt Blunt in 2007. Nixon at the time appointed an independent investigative team to avoid any potential conflict.

“I respectfully request that your office undertake, through independent appointees if you deem it necessary, a full and thorough investigation of the governor’s and his staff’s use of the Confide application,” Sifton wrote in his letter, later requesting that Hawley “take any action necessary to prevent the destruction of public records in connection with the governor’s and his staff’s use of the Confide application.”

Sifton said Missourians “deserve transparency in their government. Our Sunshine Law and records law must be upheld and enforced. I implore you to do the right thing and move forward with an investigation into this matter.”

Several Democratic lawmakers said they’ve begun working on bills addressing the governor’s actions that they hope to introduce when the 2018 legislative session begins in January.

Rep. Gina Mitten, a St. Louis County Democrat, said that if the governor or his staff are conducting public business using a secret text messaging app, it’s no different than “throwing official documents in a fireplace. This app just automatically throws them in the fireplace for you. I don’t see any difference, and it has to stop.”

Rep. Mark Ellebracht, a Liberty Democrat, said he’s focusing on drafting legislation that would “prohibit the destruction of communications regarding public business.”

“Those apps are designed to intentionally hide communications and information from the public,” he said. “This is obscene and the governor and his staff should be ashamed of themselves.”

Shielding public records from public scrutiny contributes to a growing suspicion of government and erodes the public’s trust, said Rep. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat.

“Gov. Greitens ran on a platform of cleaning up Jefferson City, yet he continues to find innovative and destructive ways to undermine the institution and subvert accountability,” she said. “We can’t accept this as normal.”

The legislature could consider clarifying the Sunshine Law to say definitively that all communications regarding public business, whether on privately owned devices or government-owned devices, must be considered public records to be retained and available for public review, said David Roland, director of litigation with the Freedom Center of Missouri, a Libertarian nonprofit that advocates for government transparency.

“It might also be wise for the Legislature to clarify what penalties should apply in the event that government officials fail to retain communications regarding public business,” Roland said.

Jane Dueker, a St. Louis Democrat who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Holden, on Twitter called using the app “newer, hipper paper shredding.

“Imagine the outrage if public officials just started shredding original state documents,” she said. “That is what is happening. The people should be outraged.”

Greitens’ press secretary, Parker Briden, did not respond to a request for comment Friday morning. He previously said he did not think anyone in the governor’s office has Confide downloaded on a state-issued cell phone.

In addition to Greitens — whose Confide account is under the name “Er Robert” — the governor’s chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, legislative director, press secretary, policy adviser, director of cabinet affairs and several other senior staff members have Confide accounts connected to their personal cell phones.

While The Star’s report on Greitens’ use of Confide inspired outrage among many Missouri politicos, it also inspired a rush to sign up for the app.

Rep. Robert Cornejo, a St. Charles County Republican who already had a Confide account, posted a link to The Star’s story on Twitter, noting: “I get a notification every time one of my ‘contacts’ joins Confide. This story explains why my phone has been buzzing all morning as people (from both sides of the aisle) join.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

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