Missouri still footing hefty bills for lawyers defending Blunt, et al
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 2, 2009 - As Missouri reporters await today's court filing of a report probing the e-mail retention policies in former Gov. Matt Blunt's office, the cash register continues to ring for private lawyers engaged in a separate but related court proceeding.
The state of Missouri has spent $1.06 million in legal fees, so far, for the private lawyers defending former Gov. Matt Blunt and four of his former aides.
The five hired the private counsel, at state expense, to defend them against the defamation suit filed more than a year ago by former Blunt staff lawyer Scott Eckersley. He contends that the governor and his staff knowingly made false statements about his character and behavior after he went public with his assertion that he was fired in September 2007 after he told Blunt's staff they were mishandling e-mails and open-records requests.
The defendants deny that they defamed Eckersley, although Blunt and others have backed off of their initial assertions that Eckersley engaged in salacious or illegal personal behavior.
A spokesman for current Attorney General Chris Koster said Tuesday that "we are paying the (legal) bills, as required by law." But otherwise, Koster has no involvement in the case, on either side, the spokesman said.
Jefferson City sources allege otherwise, saying that staff for Koster and now-Gov. Jay Nixon are involved in negotiations to persuade Eckersley and his lawyers to accept an out-of-court settlement, in order to stem the state's flow of money for the legal costs.
Here are the defendants and their legal teams, when we last reported on them:
--Blunt: Law firm of Bryan Cave in St. Louis and John C. Holstein in Springfield, Mo.
--Former Blunt chief of staff Ed Martin (who fired Eckersley and now is in involved in several political advocacy groups): Law firm of Spencer Fane Britt and Browne in St. Louis
--Former chief counsel Henry Herschel (once Eckersley's boss): Law firm of Dowd Bennett in Clayton
--Former communications director Rich Chrismer (now a campaign consultant to U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, a GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate): Law firm of Seyferth Knitting & Blumenthal in Kansas City.
--Former Office of Administration deputy commissioner Richard AuBuchon (now on staff with Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder): Law firm of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart in Kansas City
Eckersley is paying the costs for his own team of lawyers with the Springfield, Mo. firm of Strong-Garner-Bauer. But if he wins his case, the state would be on the hook for their legal fees as well.
Any settlement would include their fees.
That suit is the second part of the two-pronged court fight waged by numerous players for months over Blunt's e-mail retention practices. In short, critics say that Blunt's staff destroyed -- or attempted to destroy -- e-mails that should have been preserved for posterity, and to comply with various open-records requests.
News outlets around the state are eagerly awaiting this morning's filing in Cole County Court of the investigative report into how Blunt and his staff handled office e-mails. Also to be filed: Blunt's response to that report.
The report is being filed ias part of the December settlement of a suit filed against the Blunt administration by a court-appointed bipartisan team of lawyers, Joe Maxwell and Louis Leonatti.
The lawyers had been named by the court last summer to check out the merits of a suit filed against Blunt by a special investigative team set up by then-Attorney General Nixon to probe allegations that Blunt's administration was failing to comply with state laws governing record retention and public access to those records.
The two lawyers generally agreed with the investigators and ended up refiling the suit.
The investigators' report was initially supposed to be filed in January, but a disagreement ensued between the two lawyers and the investigative team's attorney, Chet Pleban of St. Louis. Koster's office has been in charge of paying all those legal bills as well.
Blunt's lawyers got the report about two weeks ago. They had until Monday to get the governor's written reply to Leonatti and Maxwell.