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State settles Eckersley whistleblower lawsuit for $500,000

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 22, 2009 - Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has just announced that the state has settled the lawsuit filed by Scott Eckersley against former Gov. Matt Blunt and four former aides in Blunt's office.

Eckersley, a former staff lawyer to Blunt, had filed the suit more than a year ago, alleging defamation of character and violation of the state's law protecting whistleblowers.

Eckersley contended that he was fired in September 2007 because he warned that Blunt's staff were inappropriately destroying e-mails that needed to be preserved and open to the public under the state's record-retention and open-records laws.

Blunt contended that Eckersley was fired for performance reasons.

In a statement issued Friday, Koster said that the lawsuit had been settled for $500,000. That's believed to be significantly less than Eckersley had sought.

The settlement also contains no public apology by Blunt and his former aides, which also had been sought by Eckersley.

Said Koster's statement: "It is important to note that the parties to this settlement agreement continue to vigorously defend the validity of their various positions.

"There have been significant expenses associated with the lawsuit. To date, $1,348,952.07 has been paid to defense attorneys from the State Legal Expense Fund. Continuing the litigation through trial would likely mean additional significant expenses. Consequently, a settlement is in the best interest of the taxpayers...."

A joint statement then was issued by all parties, including Eckersley, Blunt, and former aides Rich AuBuchon, Richard Chrismer, Henry Herschel and Ed Martin.

The statement mirrored Koster's comments.

Reached by telephone, Eckersley said Friday that he was declining comment "for now."

Ed Dowd, the lawyer for Herschel, who had had been Eckersley's supervisor in Blunt's office, issued a statement that underscored that there was no reconciliation among the parties.

Dowd contended that the settlement was reached to save taxpayer dollars "even though we are completely confident that no jury in this state would have paid Scott Eckersley a dime..."

"Henry Herschel did not defame Mr. Eckersley in any way," Dowd continued. "Henry said that Mr. Eckersley was fired for poor performance, routine tardiness, insubordination, threatening his supervisor and other reasons. In a trial, we believe that the evidence would have shown that each of these statements was indisputably true...."

Later Friday, Martin's lawyer -- Frank Neuner -- issued a similar statement:

"Ed Martin has maintained from the very beginning that the actions taken with regard to Scott Eckersley's employment were entirely justified, and that Mr. Eckersley's claims were totally unfounded. Mr. Martin had faith in the judicial system. ... We were confident that when we presented the actual facts and evidence in a court of law - including Mr. Eckersley's own statements and actions - we would prevail on the remaining claims, and Ed Martin would be vindicated in this matter.

"Therefore, Mr. Martin is disappointed that we will not get the opportunity to complete the job of clearing his name in that way...."

In March, a state-appointed team of investigators issued a report concluding that policies and actions in Blunt's office were "insufficient to ensure proper compliance" with state laws governing record preservation and open records.

At the time, Blunt's private lawyer had contended that the report was based on "flawed factual assumptions and conclusions."

That report was part of a December court settlement of a separate suit filed last year by two court-appointed lawyers against Blunt and his staff.

Like Friday's Eckersley settlement, the earlier settlement also avoided any finding of wrongdoing. In exchange, Blunt's administration had released more than 60,000 e-mails to several news outlets -- including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- that had been seeking them for more than a year.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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