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Lawsuit accuses St. Louis County of open records violations

January 18, 2018

CLAYTON, Mo. (AP) — St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s staff routinely violates a state law aimed at guaranteeing public access to government records, according to a lawsuit filed by Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday seeks an injunction forcing Stenger’s office to follow Missouri’s Sunshine Law. It also seeks financial damages, including penalties of up to $5,000 for each purposeful violation.

Many instances cited in the lawsuit accuse Stenger’s aides of inadequate response to requests from St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalists, the newspaper reported Thursday. Post-Dispatch Editor Gilbert Bailon said the lawsuit is warranted “because of failures to comply with the law.”

Missouri’s Sunshine Law requires governments to respond to requests for access to public records within three days. An agency can provide the documents on time; deny the request and cite the part of the law allowing confidentiality; or explain why more than three days are needed and say when records would be ready.

The law also requires a public body to appoint a records custodian, and reveal the identity of that person.

The suit alleges that Stenger’s staff failed to provide timely responses to record requests, provide access to public records or disclose the name of the records custodian.

Stenger said in a text to the Post-Dispatch that he was confident that his office would prevail. He wrote there was a “difference between responses to Sunshine requests that the Post-Dispatch may not happen to like and those which are not in compliance with the law.”

Stenger, a Democrat, called the lawsuit a “transparent attempt by the Republican attorney general to score political points” as he runs for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill.

Hawley, in a statement Thursday, wrote, “Those who violate our State Open Records laws should recognize that on my watch, they will be prosecuted for violating this trust.”

Stenger’s office failed to provide valid responses within three days in nearly half of the cases, the suit says. It also noted that both Hawley’s office and the Post-Dispatch had similar experiences when trying to find out the name of Stenger’s records custodian.

The newspaper was told the custodian was a Stenger adviser; Hawley’s office was told it was a different official. In both cases, after requests were filed, record custodian duties were switched to a different person, the suit says.

Records obtained by the attorney general showed that when a local TV reporter wrote at 4:24 p.m. on a weekday to request a computer-generated list of when a political foe of Stenger had entered the county administration building, the list was provided at 11:27 a.m. the next day, at no charge.

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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