Three of the top offices in Missouri are under scrutiny for staffers allegedly destroying public records. The practice is a mistake — and it’s also unlawful.
Secretive smartphone apps such as Confide or Signal, which allow users to permanently destroy messages, have no place in state government.
The governor’s office has been sued for using Confide. A former top aide to Attorney General Josh Hawley used the app, though he denies conducting official business with it. And the current chief of staff for Missouri Treasurer Eric Schmitt downloaded the app that erases text messages after they are read as well.
Hawley’s half-hearted investigation into the practice went nowhere. The apparent conflict of interest shouldn’t be ignored. In January, Hawley will take a seat in the U.S. Senate after insufficiently addressing the situation, and Schmitt will replace Hawley. The treasurer’s office told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch that it does not use Confide “or any similar application.”
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Bureaucrats such as Gov. Mike Parson claim they believe in transparency. Sadly, Parson’s office continues to fight a civil lawsuit accusing former Gov. Eric Greitens’ administration of violating the state’s Sunshine Law.
At least five senior staff members under Greitens admitted using the app as part of their government jobs. Close to 30 more downloaded the app. It is unclear how many staffers destroyed public records.
Parson rightfully banned the use of Confide inside the governor’s office when he replaced the scandal-plagued Greitens in June. He deserves credit for distancing himself from the controversy. But hold the applause: The directive has little merit if attorneys continue to fight attempts to hold state officials accountable for violating the law.
“The governor strongly discourages the practice of any statewide official or administrator using Confide,” said Steele Shippy, Parson’s communications director. “The governor has led by example and will continue to lead with honest and integrity. We hope others will follow his lead.”
Defense lawyers in the Confide civil case asked the court to dismiss the suit, arguing that the messages in question no longer exist, by definition. Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled “the argument that the use of the Confide app excuses compliance because nothing is retained holds less water than a policy of using disappearing ink for all official documents.”
Beetem’s ruling was a clear rebuke of the defense’s legal strategy, which attempted to explain away the unexplainable. The case has been stayed until next month but the legal bills continue to mount. The Kansas City-based Bryan Cave law firm has since March billed the state at a rate of $140 an hour, an average of about $6,720 per month.
Open government and transparency is clearly at the forefront of the public’s consciousness, and there’s a record retention fiasco inside the State Capitol in Jefferson City. Parson could easily order attorneys working on behalf of the state to drop their appeal and allow staffers to testify under oath about using the app. Or he could commission a closer look by an independent party.
“Right now, we lack leadership in our state,” said attorney Elad Gross.
Gross, a former assistant in the AG’s office, intends to run for attorney general in 2020. He sued to get the financial records of A New Missouri, a dark money group associated with Greitens. Beetem dismissed that case earlier this month.
The use of a text-destroying app serves one purpose, Gross said: to prevent Missourians from seeing public records. This is what state leaders should do to shine a light on what the public deserves to see:
▪ State offices should ban officials’ use of text-destroying apps immediately.
▪ All state office staffers who used text-destroying apps should provide a public accounting of what they destroyed.
▪ The General Assembly should ban public officials’ use of text-destroying apps by legislation.
▪ Executive officers, and the legislature if necessary, should require at least basic Sunshine Law training for all public employees. The attorney general’s office could be a resource for training, as it’s the one charged with enforcing the Sunshine Law — and the attorney general should take that responsibility seriously.
The onus remains on Parson to push for the truth — and to protect Missouri taxpayers from secretive public officials. But he has so far let attorneys do the talking. The first-time governor and longtime politician would be wise to adhere to the words spoken years ago by President Harry S. Truman and stop the buck in his office.