Government & Politics

Missouri auditor says AG missed deadline in open records investigation into governor

Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway says the attorney general’s office has missed its self-imposed deadline to determine whether Gov. Mike Parson illegally withheld information from public records by citing the First Amendment.

Galloway, a Democrat who is exploring a run for governor in 2020, asked Attorney General Eric Schmitt in May to weigh in on whether Parson’s policy of redacting information from public records was a violation of Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

The request came after The Star revealed that the governor was using the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to justify redacting certain information from public documents.

The First Amendment protects freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, the press, and the right to petition, and Parson’s office was using it to redact telephone numbers, addresses and email addresses of private citizens who have reached out to the governor’s office.

Schmitt, who like Parson is a Republican, promised a response to Galloway’s request within 90 days.

The 90-day deadline passed on Monday, Galloway said.

“The Attorney General is charged with enforcing the Sunshine Law,” Galloway said in a statement released Thursday morning. “I would expect that he would give an opinion as to whether it is appropriate to redact the information of those attempting to conduct business with or lobby a government entity. Missourians deserve to know who is influencing their government.”

The governor’s office has defended its policy, saying that this is a free speech issue because citizens would not reach out to their elected officials if they believed their personal information might become public.

Transparency advocates pilloried the policy, calling it a flagrant violation of the Sunshine Law.

Galloway, whose office does not redact this information from records, argued in her request to the attorney general’s office that Parson’s policy “provides greater protections to those lobbying or conducting business with the government entity than is given to individuals who are referenced in arrest and incident report records.”

Schmitt’s spokesman, Chris Nuelle, said the initial response to the auditor’s request made it clear that the attorney general’s office “works on routine opinion requests in the order in which they’re received.”

“A certain request does not take precedent over others that came before it,” Nuelle said. “We do everything in our power to address opinion requests in a timely fashion, and we will continue to do so.”

The attorney general’s office’s policy regarding when to redact personal information from public records differs from the governor’s office.

Nuelle said personal information, like email addresses or phone numbers, is redacted only when there are extenuating circumstances — such as to protect a whistleblower or as part of an ongoing investigation.

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Jason Hancock is The Star’s lead political reporter, providing coverage of government and politics on both sides of the state line. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he has written about politics for more than a decade for news organizations across the Midwest.