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Government, Politics & Issues

How Ferguson Contracted A High-Priced Company To Search Its Emails

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Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
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Members of the Ferguson City Council during a recent meeting.

Ferguson did not use a bidding process to select the company it wanted to handle its open records requests, according to documents obtained by St. Louis Public Radio. Ferguson also apparently made no attempt to negotiate the for-profit company’s fees, which could total thousands of dollars for public records.

Acumen Consulting, a St. Louis-based company, is charging journalists a base fee of $500 a request and then a $135 an hour fee on top – all to search through emails for keywords.

For one request, Acumen searched through the emails of 14 city employees for four keywords pertaining to the shooting of Mike Brown and the subsequent protests. That search took Acumen five hours to perform. Under the company’s current fee structure, that was a job worth $1,175.

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“We make dozens of sunshine law requests every year, and I never have had a government agency outsource it to an outside entity,” Tony Rothert with the ACLU of Missouri said. “The kind of charges you’re talking about here are so over-the-top that it's ridiculous.”

Ferguson’s charter requires a bidding process for contracts costing more than $10,000, an amount that Acumen is likely to be paid considering the amount of open records requests the city has received. But this is an odd situation because media outlets are footing the bill, making it unclear if the city had violated its charter.

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We asked for all records showing Ferguson employees making any effort to find other businesses that could do what Acumen is doing but cheaper. They said there were no such records.

Ferguson officials did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Acumen Consulting also did not respond to questions about its fee structure.

“I’m both surprised and not surprised that there was no bidding process,” Rothert said. “I’m not surprised because as we’ve seen, Ferguson’s first response to questions seems to be to shut down and to stonewall. But the talk we hear from political leaders is to be open and transparent. And this is the opposite of that.”

State law sets limits on how much agencies can charge to turn over public records, mandating that it be carried out “using employees of the body that result in the lowest amount of charges.”  

The hefty price tag has drawn formal complaints from several media organizations and outlets. St. Louis Public Radio filed a complaint on Tuesday with the Missouri attorney general’s office, which is in charge of enforcing open records law. CNN, the Radio Television Digital News Association (a media advocacy organization), and the Associated Press have also complained about Ferguson’s tactics.

On Thursday, a representative from Attorney General Chris Koster’s office asked for more documents on the matter. She could offer no timeline for when the investigation would be complete.

Editor's note: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the ACLU are co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit with Chris McDaniel against the Missouri Department of Corrections for withholding public records.

Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter@csmcdaniel

Read Ferguson's contract with Acumen, as well as its emails with the company.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.