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Former Blunt lawyer officially settles case with the state, cashes checks for $500,000

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 21, 2009 - Scott Eckersley, the staff lawyer fired by Gov. Matt Blunt who ignited a two-year battle over office emails, says he has signed the papers settling his lawsuit against Blunt and other former aides.

Eckersley also has cashed both of his settlement checks, which total $500,000.

Those actions took place after Eckersley met Monday with the staff of Attorney General Chris Koster, who has been overseeing the settlement talks for months.

"After my meeting with the attorney general's office, I'm satisfied that all the terms will be met,'' Eckersley said in an interview this afternoon.

That had not appeared to be the case late last week. Eckersley had fired his lawyers Thursday night, and said in an interview Friday that he feared he might have to go back to court to obtain what he called "an apology letter" from Gov. Jay Nixon, on behalf of the state.

Such a letter was to make clear that some of the salacious accusations made by Blunt's administration against Eckersley were untrue. Those assertions had contended that Eckersley had been fired because, among other things, he used his office computer to access a sex Web site, had improperly conducted family legal business on state time, and may have used drugs. Blunt officials later had backed away from those accusations; a lawyer for the sex site also had denied that Eckersley had ever accessed it.

Eckersley's quest for a letter exonerating him had prompted him to refuse for weeks to cash the settlement checks. He had received them in May when a settlement initially had been announced.

A spokesman for Nixon said Monday that "a very complimentary letter'' had been inserted into Eckersley's personnel file, at the governor's request. It was signed by Kelvin Simmons, head of the state Office of Administration.

In the letter, Simmon wrote that he had "found no substantiation'' for any of the assertions accusing Eckersley of personal misdeeds.

Eckersley had wanted the letter to be signed by Nixon, but a spokesman for the governor said it appeared that it was more appropriate for Simmons to sign the letter because it pertained to a personnel matter.

Those personal accusations had been a sore spot for Eckersley, a devout Mormon, ever since his firing in September 2007.

Eckersley, then a staff lawyer for Blunt, had contended that he was dismissed after warning the governor's staff that they were mishandling office emails by routinely deleting communications that should be preserved under the state's record-preservation law and made available to the public and press under Missouri's Sunshine Law.

At the time, Blunt's staff was declining to provide some e-mails sought by reporters, saying that they no longer existed. The state's record-retention laws states that some communications in the governor's office must be retained for up to three years.

A controversy erupted when Blunt then said publicly that "nobody saves e-mails for three years." Nixon, then the attorney general, appointed an independent investigative team to probe how e-mails were handled in Blunt's office. Blunt and his staff contended that the investigation was politically motivated, since Blunt is a Republican and Nixon is a Democrat.

The settlement resolved this week pertains to a lawsuit that Eckersley filed in January 2008 that alleged, among other things, defamation of character.

A separate suit was filed by the Nixon investigation team, dismissed and refiled by a bipartisan team of lawyers. That suit was resolved in November and December 2008, and led to the release of close to 70,000 e-mails to various news outlets, including the Post-Dispatch, who had sought them.

Lawyers for Eckersley, Blunt, four former aides to Blunt and Koster -- whose office oversaw the settlement talks -- had announced in May that a settlement had been reached in his case as well.

The apology letter sought by Eckersley had been "a side agreement,'' as he put it, with Nixon's staff. Blunt and the other defendents in the suit were unaware of it.

A spokesman for Koster confirmed late this afternoon that the settlement appeared to be on track, and that Eckersley had signed the checks. He was sending a signed copy of the agreement, which will be filed with the court and officially end the long-running case, Koster spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said.

As for his former attorneys, Eckersley said they would be receiving the portion of the $500,000 settlement due them. Of the total, $50,000 was doled out in a separate check to Eckersley that represented part of the state salary he had lost as a result of his dismissal.

Separately, the state of Missouri paid close to $1.5 million in legal costs for Blunt and the former aides in connection with the Eckersley case.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.