Commentary: Let Tony Soprano handle state communication | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Let Tony Soprano handle state communication

May 15, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: You won't catch me saying anything provocative in an email, no ma'am. Actually, that is not true. I routinely send missives that provoke and irritate half the recipients, simultaneously titillating the other half. I do not use expletives, which garishly punctuate certain bloggers' tirades and try not to embarrass my wife or my mom. In other words, I will defend every last word I write -- with today's technology you might as well be skywriting.

Online diction becomes even more crucial when you work for Gov. Matt Blunt. The recent email fracas has been nipping at the governor's heels for several months and contains all the elements of political intrigue: a young governor who inexplicably will not seek a second term, email records destroyed, innuendos about their content, a self-described whistle-blower fired and impugned, online porn. Attempting to burn off the fog over the whole murky mess is Missouri's Sunshine Law.

Scott Eckersley, a 31-year-old lawyer working for the Blunt administration, was fired last September. Eckersley claims he was kicked out because he alerted his bosses to their non-compliance with Missouri's Sunshine Law, which designates much, but not all government correspondence to be part of the public record. Eckersley claims that destroying email records is illegal, yet his employers claim he never communicated that legal opinion to them.

The Blunt administration, under the microscope, claims that Eckersley was fired for cause, including working on his own family business during work hours, receiving internet porn on his government email account and insubordination. It seems Eckersley was fired the day after he had a heated exchange with his direct superior, Ed Martin. A word to the wise, Scott Eckersley: if you like your job, do not argue with your boss. Conversely, if you feel you are being asked to do something unethical, you must resign.

Aye, there's the rub: Is there anything unethical about destroying emails, and what does Missouri's Sunshine Law actually say? Sunshine, of course, sounds great. Who would support an Overcast Law or a Downpour Law? It would not be popular.

We may all agree that we would like to know what our elected officials are emailing to each other on the taxpayers' dime, but the attorney general's office details many exemptions to the strictures of the Sunshine Law: legal actions, real estate transactions, employee and personnel matters, welfare cases of identifiable individuals, security matters and records protected by other laws. The bottom line is that for every email that should be public, there may well be a record that should be kept private -- for honest reasons.

Let us briefly re-examine what happened to the Blunt administration when the "license fee office investigation" saw sunshine in 2006. Article after article appeared throughout the state, alleging cronyism, FBI sleuthing and friends of the young governor getting rich while we poor schlubs wait in line for license renewals.

Like the current brouhaha over email correspondence, mere innuendo was enough to convict the governor in the press, requiring an unprecedented public exoneration from U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins in October 2006:

"Earlier in the year, the existence of the investigation was disclosed to the media and has since become a topic of substantial public interest and discourse in the state of Missouri. In light of that unfortunate disclosure and the publicity it spawned, it is appropriate to confirm certain facts. First, the matter has been closed with no indictments sought or returned. Second, at no time was Gov. Blunt a target, subject or witness in the investigation, nor was he implicated in any allegation being investigated. Any allegations or inferences to the contrary are uninformed and erroneous." 

There is only one way to make sure that our public officials are not tried, convicted and executed in the press based on incomplete, exaggerated or erroneous information, gleaned and culled with the Sunshine Law. It's the Tony Soprano method: Don't say nothin' ... Let's take a walk ... The walls have ears. It is ironic that high technology and political rancor have enfeebled us.

About the authorDonald Meissner heads Donald Meissner Communications, University City.