© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Schweich criticizes Missouri House and Senate for sunshine law contention

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: State Auditor Tom Schweich sharply criticized the Missouri House and Senate for its contention that records from individual lawmakers are not covered under the state’s open records laws.

Schweich, a Republican, released audits of the House and Senate on Friday. Among other things, the audits criticized both chambers for not properly retaining e-mail correspondence. The audits then went on to question the contention that records from individual lawmakers aren’t subject to the state’s Sunshine Law.

The Beacon reported last year that administrators from both chambers contend that lawmaker records aren't covered under the Sunshine Law because individual legislators aren't considered governmental bodies. Some state Democratic lawmakers and advocates of the Sunshine Law say such a policy provides a cloak of secrecy over legislative decision-making.

Some Republicans – such as then-House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka – argued that such a move would be too costly to implement and could have “an extreme chilling effect on the public contacting individual legislators.”

Both audits stated that while each chamber believes the Sunshine Law “does not apply to records of individual members, the law related to this matter is ambiguous and no Missouri court has ruled on this specific issue.”

“We are cognizant of the need to keep certain records confidential. For example, to protect the interests of private citizens, records related to whistleblower complaints and allegations of improprieties should be exempted from public disclosure,” the audit stated. “However, other correspondence clearly relating to the conduct of public business should be subject to public scrutiny. [State law] states it is public policy that [the law] should be liberally construed.”

The audits went on to say it is a “double standard” for the legislature to impose “additional requirements on other public governmental bodies while enjoying a blanket exemption from the Sunshine Law.

“The legislature should take this opportunity to bring individual members under the umbrella of the law while carving out legitimate and necessary exceptions to public disclosure,” the audit stated.

An unsigned response within the Senate’s audit said the chamber “agreed that records maintained by the Senate administrator and other Senate support staff are subject to the Sunshine Law.” The Beacon reported last year that such records could include chamber of committee records.

“These records are the official records of the Senate and are produced when requested,” the response stated. “Individual senators are not considered a ‘public governmental body’ so their records are not subject to Sunshine Law requests.”

The House’s response to Schweich’s audit stated: “The House of Representatives recognizes the expressed concerns and continues to follow the established statutory and case law on this matter.”

House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, said in a statement that his caucus shares Schweich’s "concerns regarding the claim by House Republican leaders that the official records of individual state representatives aren’t subject to public disclosure under Missouri’s Sunshine Law.”

“House Democrats believe this interpretation is wholly unsupported by state law and was concocted to discourage Missourians from seeking official records to which they are entitled,” Hummel said. “Despite the House majority party’s interpretation, it has long been the policy of the House Democratic Caucus to honor Sunshine Law requests for official documents held by Democratic state representatives, and we will continue to do so.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.