Four years ago, Dan Kolde sued the University of Missouri. His clients, a California-based nonprofit called the Beagle Freedom Project, had sought to obtain records about the dogs and cats the university was using for research.
Those records were indisputably open to the public under Missouri’s Sunshine Law. What fell into dispute was the cost. The Beagle Freedom Project had made their request as narrow as possible, asking only for records the university was required to maintain for federal inspectors. Still, the university announced it needed $82,222 from the nonprofit to produce them.
Kolde’s clients sued instead. Last fall, they won at trial. And on Monday, the case finally wrapped up — with the judge signing off on a final settlement that has the university paying Dan Kolde and his clients $175,000. That’s a hefty sum in light of the fact that Kolde had publicly offered to settle the case for just $1 and a few key policy changes.
On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Kolde explained that testimony and trial showed the university had been hoping the Beagle Freedom Project would just go away. The records’ cost included 1,500 “man hours” from 30 different employees, some of them extremely well compensated.
In some cases, the Beagle Freedom Project would have to pay them more than $125 an hour to gather the records. That’s even though the Sunshine Law requires the “lowest cost” employee be used to fill such requests.
“These were basically some of the highest-paid people at the university,” Kolde recalled.
And that’s one reason he believed the university was simply trying to inflate the cost: “These guys [generally] weren’t going through the files and doing administrative work. We knew from the beginning that was suspect.”
“Some of the evidence in the trial testimony clearly indicated that the university was absolutely hostile to the Beagle Freedom Project,” Kolde said. “During trial, one of their employees [said] that, ‘A lot of times activism happens, and if there’s a cost associated, a lot of times it’s not just followed through with.’”
“The custodian of records herself sent an email to some of the university staff members saying, ‘Often, these animals rights groups just don’t want to put out the money.’”
Reached for comment, a University of Missouri spokesman said, “The University of Missouri is committed to being transparent and in compliance of the law. We respond to nearly 700 Sunshine requests per year and devote significant resources to live up to the requirements of the Sunshine Law. We respectfully disagree that the University violated those requirements. We respect the court and are pleased to have reached this settlement.”
The settlement that the judge signed off on Monday includes legal fees for Kolde and two others lawyers and some administrative costs, as well as a $1,000 fine for a “knowing” Sunshine Law violation. Kolde noted that the $1,000 fine is the maximum for such Sunshine Law violations, but that the law allows lawyers to recoup their fees as an incentive to take on such cases.
Producer's note: The University of Missouri Board of Curators holds the license to St. Louis Public Radio. The station is editorially independent.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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