Government & Politics

Was texting advice for Greitens' staff aimed at avoiding embarrassment or evading law?

This is a page from a PowerPoint presentation that the governor’s office used to educate staff on the state’s Sunshine Law.
This is a page from a PowerPoint presentation that the governor’s office used to educate staff on the state’s Sunshine Law.

Training that Gov. Eric Greitens’ staff got on the state’s Sunshine Law didn’t mince words in regards to sending text messages on their government cellphones.

Don’t do it.

A PowerPoint presentation created by the lawyers in the governor’s office to train staff on the ins and outs of the state’s open records and record retention law included a page that made that point very clear.

“Do not send text messages on your work-issued phone.”

“Do not send text messages on your work-issued phone.”

“Do not send text messages on your work-issued phone.”

That line was repeated seven more times on the page.

Attorneys defending the governor’s office in a lawsuit over its use of a self-destructing text message app say that when taken in full, the PowerPoint demonstrates a commitment by the Greitens administration to making sure staff understand what the law requires and abide by it.

Yet the attorneys who brought the lawsuit argued the PowerPoint demonstrates “a willful desire to evade the law and a fundamental misunderstanding of the law.”

“Why would anybody encourage people in a work environment not to use a work phone?” said Mark Pedroli, a St. Louis attorney suing the governor. “I'll tell you why: to evade oversight.”

Pedroli filed the lawsuit in December over revelations that Greitens and his senior government staff used Confide, an app that allows someone to send a text message that automatically erases after it is read.

Confide also prevents anyone from saving, forwarding, printing or taking a screenshot of the text, raising concerns among government transparency advocates that the app could be used to subvert the state’s open records laws.

After The Star first revealed Greitens’ use of Confide, Attorney General Josh Hawley launched an investigation. Without subpoena power, the attorney general’s office mainly relied on interviews with the governor’s staff. But the governor’s office did turn over some of the training tools it used to educate staff on the state’s Sunshine Law.

With Confide, messages can’t be saved, so it’s impossible to know whether former Gov. Eric Greitens and his senior staff were using it to conduct state business out of the public eye.

Among those documents was a 24-page PowerPoint titled “The Sunshine Law, Retention of Records and You.”

The document goes through various aspects of the state’s records laws, including examples about the types of communications that would be required to be turned over if requested by the public.

In the pages leading up to the discussion of texting on work-related phones, the PowerPoint lays out examples of embarrassing email exchanges, such as a public employee saying they wanted to go to a bar and “get trashed.”

The next-to-last page of the document is titled “A Special Note About Text Messages” along with the phrase “Do not send text messages on your work-issued phone” 10 times.

Instead of sending a text on the government cellphone, the PowerPoint says staff should instead consider “walking down the hall and having an in-person conversation” or “picking up the phone.” It does not say staff should use a personal cellphone to send the text.

Thirteen senior members of the governor’s office, including Greitens, have admitted they had Confide accounts associated with their personal cellphones.

“The Sunshine law isn't restricted to public-issued phones, it applies to all phones,” Pedroli said. “Obviously this PowerPoint document supports the allegations in our lawsuit that the governor's office purposefully violated the Sunshine Law. Evading the law appears to have been the strategy from the beginning."

Robert Thompson, a Kansas City-based attorney with the Bryan Cave law firm who is representing the governor’s office in Pedroli’s lawsuit, dismissed that interpretation.

He noted that the attorney general’s investigation concluded in March with a report that praised the governor’s office’s training in regards to the Sunshine Law and records-retention laws.

“If you read the PowerPoint in full, it demonstrates the administration’s commitment to following record retention obligations,” he said. “These training materials helped ensure that staff understood and followed the law — a fact that the attorney general’s investigation confirmed.”

In response to written questions from Pedroli, Greitens admitted he "occasionally used Confide to communicate with members of the Office of Governor about scheduling in a manner that was consistent with the requirements of the Open Records Law.”

Last month, Pedroli subpoenaed records from New York City-based Confide Inc. in an attempt to reconstruct messages sent using the app. This week he issued a subpoena to Caleb Jones, the governor's former deputy chief of staff.