How an app on former Gov. Greitens’ phone made a paper trail impossible
Eric Greitens had been governor less than a year, and one of his biggest boosters was getting frustrated.
David Steelman, a member of the University of Missouri system’s board of curators whose wife was part of Greitens’ cabinet, was at dinner with a friend and venting his exasperation with the rookie governor.
“I think I said to him, ‘Who’s (Greitens) listening to?’” Steelman recalled in an interview last week with The Star. “And he said ‘just get on Confide and you’ll see… if you want to know who is running government, there they are right there.’”
The governor’s office was sued last year over use of the texting app Confide, which deletes text messages after they’ve been read. Greitens resigned from office June 1, but the lawsuit alleging the governor’s staff used Confide to circumvent Missouri’s Sunshine Law continues to churn in Cole County court, and the new governor’s legal team continues to try to get it dismissed.
As part of that lawsuit, the governor’s office earlier this year turned over screenshots of text messages Greitens’ staff sent on their government-issued phones.
Those screenshots, which were obtained by The Star, show staff openly discussing the use of Confide not only among themselves but also with people outside the governor’s office.
The attorneys who sued Greitens contend the screenshots demonstrate that Confide was being used to avoid the Sunshine Law. And although Greitens may be gone, they argue Missourians still deserve a full accounting of what happened during his tenure to prevent history from repeating itself.
“Missourians will not tolerate an underground government, a government that conspires to communicate using disappearing ink,” said Mark Pedroli, one of a pair of attorneys who filed the Confide lawsuit last year.
One exchange documented in the screenshots occurred last November between Steelman and Greitens’ former deputy chief of staff, Nick Maddux.
Steelman sent Maddux a text message requesting a phone call. Maddux replied, “I’m jammed up until four. Just shot you a message on Confide.”
It was the only Confide message Steelman says he ever received. And although he said he remembers what Maddux sent him, he declined to discuss whether the message involved public business that would have required it to be retained and disclosed under Missouri law.
“I do recall the substance of it, but I do not want to throw some young staffer under the bus that was just following orders,” Steelman told The Star. “If it was a more senior person I might have a different attitude, but he’s a young staffer following orders.”
At the time the Confide message was sent, Greitens was in Texas attending the the Republican Governors Association’s annual conference. The next day, Greitens made a surprise appointment to the Missouri Housing Development Commission, which then voted to stop issuing low-income housing tax credits.
Maddux declined comment when reached by The Star.
Another exchange took place last December and involved an unknown Greitens staffer sending a message to Andy Blunt, a prominent Jefferson City lobbyist and son of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.
“Check Confide,” the message to Blunt said.
The screenshot was cropped in such a way that the context of the message is unknown.
The next message in the exchange was from Blunt.
“Did you fill that job opening?” he said. “I have an idea.”
“Yes let’s talk on the phone about it,” the Greitens staffer replied.
Blunt declined comment when reached by The Star.
Earlier this year The Star reported on another screenshot showing three Greitens’ staffers discussing using Confide to share talking points on one of the governor’s policy priorities. Other screenshots show numerous staffers texting colleagues to notify them that they had sent a message using Confide, or inviting them to download the app.
Pedroli called the screenshots “just the tip of the iceberg.”
“Evidence continues to pour in demonstrating the use of Confide to conduct public business in the Greitens administration,” Pedroli said. “Based on comments of others in and around government, I’m wondering if any public business was conducted on the record.”
The Star first reported late last year that Greitens and his senior staff in the governor’s office had Confide accounts associated with their personal cellphones, a revelation that set off alarms for transparency advocates who fear the app could be used to avoid compliance with the Sunshine Law.
Following The Star’s report, Attorney General Josh Hawley launched an investigation into Greitens’ use of Confide, ultimately concluding that there was no evidence of wrongdoing in part because Confide ensured there was no evidence.
Hawley was criticized for the inquiry, which consisted of interviews with eight Greitens staffers who said they had Confide downloaded on their cellphones. Greitens was not questioned.
Of those interviewed, five told the attorney general’s office they used Confide to discuss their government jobs but said the communications consisted “entirely of nonsubstantive matters such as logistics and scheduling.”
In May, as part of the pending lawsuit, the governor’s office acknowledged that in fact 20 staffers had Confide accounts during Greitens’ time in office, including Greitens himself.
Greitens also admitted he used Confide to communicate with his taxpayer-funded staff, but only about scheduling. A smattering of campaign staff, Greitens’ political allies and people Greitens appointed to positions on boards and commissions also had Confide accounts.
Gov. Mike Parson, who replaced Greitens, has instituted a policy banning his staff from using self-destructing text message applications such as Confide. His spokesman said the administration’s Sunshine and record retention policy “reflects the governor’s strong commitment for openness and transparency.”
But Pedroli notes that while Parson has banned Confide, attorneys representing the governor’s office continue to work to get the lawsuit dismissed by arguing that Confide use doesn’t violate the state’s open records laws.
At a June hearing, the governor’s attorneys — who were hired when Greitens was still in office — argued that text messages sent using Confide that were automatically deleted couldn’t have been retained, and thus, the governor’s office couldn’t make them public.
“The Sunshine Law is designed to allow access to documents that exist,” Barbara Smith, an attorney with the Bryan Cave law firm hired to represent the governor’s office, said at the June hearing.
Pedroli called this “a dangerous legal argument” that would reward Greitens for “destroying the evidence.”
“If the Greitens/Parsons legal argument prevails,” Pedroli said, “then any future governor, or executive officer, could reinstate the use of Confide for public business or simply burn or shred public documents without violating the Sunshine Law.”
As for Steelman, he said he understands that his refusal to discuss what Greitens’ deputy chief of staff sent him on Confide will likely lead many to conclude that the message was incriminating.
“That may be, but I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to make anything up,” he said. “I’m just going to say why I’m not answering. I’d like to, candidly, but I have a lot of sympathy for the young Greitens staffers that got put in bad positions.”