July 14, 2008

Cole County Judge Dismisses E-Mail Lawsuit Against Gov. Blunt

By Scott Lauck

Ten-day window left for AG to join case

A lawsuit over the e-mail policy of Gov. Matt Blunt might be doomed after a Cole County judge on Friday dismissed the suit on procedural grounds.

In a brief order issued a day after he heard arguments in the case, Judge Richard Callahan said former Missouri State Highway Patrol Superintendent Mel Fisher lacked standing to bring the lawsuit. Fisher, who had been appointed by Attorney General Jay Nixon as an independent investigator, had brought the allegations of Sunshine Law violations on behalf of the state of Missouri.

Callahan's order to dismiss did not entirely close the door on the lawsuit. He gave the plaintiffs 10 days to show that Fisher was personally aggrieved by Blunt's alleged actions, or else to allow the attorney general's office to take over the case, potentially by appointing a special assistant attorney general to prevent conflicts of interest.

In an e-mailed statement, the attorney general's office said it remained "committed to ensuring that all public documents are open and available."

"We are reviewing the order and will make sure the independent investigative team has all the legal tools needed to accomplish this important work," the statement said.

Fisher's suit had accused Blunt's office of violating the state Sunshine Law. The suit stemmed from the firing last year of a Blunt office attorney named Scott Eckersley.

Eckersley contends in a separate defamation lawsuit that he was fired for questioning the office's e-mail retention practices. Blunt's office maintains that he was fired for other reasons. The defamation portions of the suit, which had been pending in Independence, Springfield, Jefferson City and St. Louis, were recently transferred to Jackson County for purposes of discovery and pre-trial motions.

At Thursday's hearing, Blunt's lawyer, John Holstein, a former state Supreme Court judge who is now in private practice at Shughart Thomson & Kilroy's Springfield office, urged dismissal of the suit. He told Callahan only the state attorney general had standing to sue over alleged Sunshine violations.

Fisher's attorney, St. Louis lawyer Chet Pleban, had countered that Fisher had been "clothed with the duty and responsibility" to initiate the lawsuit when the attorney general appointed him.

Neither lawyer returned calls by press time Friday.

The Associated Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star had sought to join Fisher's lawsuit, as they are seeking e- mails from Blunt's office. The media outlets' request remains under advisement pending the ultimate outcome of Fisher's suit.

Originally published by Scott Lauck.

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