Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is looking into whether Gov. Eric Greitens’ administration may be violating the state’s Sunshine Law.
It’s in response to a Kansas City Star report that the Republican governor and his staff use a phone application that automatically deletes text messages.
Hawley told St. Louis Public Radio in a telephone interview Wednesday, "As we do in every Sunshine inquiry, we go out and say ‘OK, well, we’ve gotten the complaint and we’ve gotten the request.’ Let’s go and find what the facts are and we’ll apply to those to the law.' And that’s exactly what we’re going to do here.”
Hawley, a Republican, said that state law might need to be updated to reflect electronic communications like texts. In general, he added, "It's our sense and our feeling that the same analysis that we use for emails and the Sunshine Law should be used for text messages."
The Star reported earlier this month that Greitens and his staff members use Confide, which erases text messages shortly after they’re sent. Once that’s done, there’s no record of the electronic communication.
After the Star’s story came out, state Sen. Scott Sifton, a Democrat from Affton, called on Hawley to open up an investigation into whether the governor’s administration violated open records laws. Hawley, whose office oversees enforcement of the Sunshine Law, initially balked at the move, since the attorney general represents the governor in court.
But in a letter to Sifton, Hawley said there’s case law showing that his office “does not have a conflict of interest in this case.” He also wrote that his “clients are first and foremost the citizens of the state.”
“While my office currently represents the governor in ongoing litigation, it represents the governor in those other cases in his official capacity,” Hawley wrote to Sifton. “The real part in interest in each of those cases, and the Office’s true client, is the State of Missouri. … Thus, the client in those cases is the same client that the Attorney General represents when he exercises his common-law authority and when he enforces the Sunshine Law.”
Hawley added in an interview that he is making sure that the staff looking into Greitens' communications have no ties to their colleagues handling other legal cases involving the governor.
Sifton said in an interview that he was surprised when he received Hawley's letter Wednesday afternoon. "I am pleased the attorney general has responded to two weeks of public pressure and is moving forward with an investigation,'' Sifton said. "Transparency in government is essential. And it’s especially important for our state’s highest office."
"Government documents have to preserved," Sifton said, adding that it was his belief that the governor's office may be running afoul of the state law by using Confide. He predicted the General Assembly may take up the issue of revamping the state's Sunshine Law when it convenes in January.
Greitens spokesman Parker Briden said in a statement, “We’re confident that this review of our records retention policy will show that we followed the law.”
Last week, Greitens told reporters at a St. Louis press conference that the Star’s article was “just another nothing story that’s come from a liberal media outlet that is just desperate for salacious headlines.”
This is not the first time that an attorney general launched an inquiry into records retention inside a governor’s office. Back in 2007, then-Attorney General Jay Nixon appointed a special investigative team to see if then-Gov. Matt Blunt was illegally deleting e-mails.
But there are some differences between those two scenarios: Nixon was a Democratic officeholder who had developed an acrimonious relationship with a Republican governor. Hawley and Greitens are both Republicans.
And while Nixon brought people from outside the attorney general's office to look into the matter, two members of Hawley’s staff, Amy Haywood and Darrell Moore, will undertake looking into Greitens’ records retention practices.
In his letter to Sifton, Hawley emphasized that “the personnel conducting that inquiry” will be screened “from the office’s ongoing representation of the governor.” He added, “We have already implemented that ethical screen, which will remain in effect during the pendency of our inquiry.”
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