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Former Blunt lawyer says Koster letter clears him of wrongdoing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2009 - After months of haggling, Scott Eckersley finally got a letter from the state of Missouri that he says "clears my name, both personally and professionally,'' from some of the more salacious charges leveled against him by his former employer, then-Gov. Matt Blunt and his staff.

The letter was released today by Attorney General Chris Koster, who signed the letter last Friday. Eckersley had sought unsuccessfully to have it signed instead by Gov. Jay Nixon, who had been attorney general during Eckersley's two-year court fight with Blunt's administration.

A question now is whether the delay in the release of the letter was linked at all to a dispute between Eckersley and his Springfield, Mo. lawyers -- Steve Garner and Jeff Bauer -- members of a law firm with strong Democratic ties. Koster's office required that Eckersley sign a separate document in which he agreed to pay his lawyers the roughly $200,000 they say they are owed.

Eckersley had figured at the center of a long-running battle with the Blunt administration over the retention and release of office e-mails, which Blunt's staff initially claimed were not public records. Two parallel suits challenging various aspects of the case were settled last winter and spring.

Eckersley was fired as the then-governor's deputy counsel in September 2007 in what he contended was in retaliation for his warnings that Blunt's staff was mishandling office e-mails by deleting those that should be preserved as records.

Blunt's staff had contended Eckersley was fired for personal and professional misconduct, outlining various assertions of salacious personal activities (taking drugs, accessing a sex Web site, working on family business at the office)  that Eckersley denied. Later, Blunt and his staff backed away from the allegations, in part after probes by reporters and lawyers generally disproved them. 

In the letter, Koster said "the evidence in this case refutes'' the allegations against Eckersley. Koster wrote that his staff's findings also bolster Eckersley's contention that he had been dismissed after offering advice about how to follow the state's open-records law, called the Sunshine Law.

Although Koster was not in office during most of the court fights, his staff was involved in crafting the final financial settlement reached in June. In that settlement, Eckersley received $500,000, part of which was to pay his legal fees.  Separately, the state paid close to $1.4 million in attorneys' fees to the various lawyers hired to defend Blunt and four aides.

However, Eckersley had maintained at the time that a private agreement had called for a letter from the state of Missouri absolving him of any personal misconduct. No such letter was produced when that June settlement was announced. As a result, he held off cashing his check for weeks.

Eckersley, a devout Mormon, was particularly sensitive about the personal misconduct allegations leveled at him and had made no secret of his quest for a strongly worded letter absolving him.

The lack of such a letter was at the heart of his dispute with his lawyers. Eckersley has maintained to reporters that his lawyers had promised him since late last year that such a letter from the state -- dubbed at one point an "apology letter'' -- would be part of the final settlement.

In July, Koster's office had circulated to the pertinent parties a copy of one such letter, which went into detail about each of the personal accusations in what was supposed to be a rejection of them. Those receiving the copies included the lawyers for the five people sued by Eckersley. The lawyers had balked at any sort of apology letter. However, Blunt allies who viewed that draft letter -- a copy of which was provided late today to the Beacon -- viewed the detail as actually  bolstering some of their personal assertions against Eckersley.

Eckersley didn't see it that way, but acknowledges that he rejected that version because he opposed detailing once again the personal allegations made against him. If anything, Eckersley had sought a more strongly worded letter absolving him than the one ultimately signed and released by Koster.

In an interview today, however, Eckersley had no complaints about anybody. He called the letter he finally received from Koster "a victory for the principles that were represented in this lawsuit and clears my name both personally and professionally.

"Government accountability and the open-records law were the things that really mattered in this lawsuit,'' he said.

And clearing his name.

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