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Pile of public records requests swells as Missouri AG works through stack from 2021

The Missouri flag waves in the sunlight
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The State of Missouri flag is illuminated by sunlight on January 2023 in downtown St. Louis. The Missouri Attorney General' office confirmed it was still processing 397 records requests, up from 374 in June and 389 last month.

The Missouri attorney general’s office crossed an ignominious milestone last week.

Nearly nine months after taking office, Attorney General Andrew Bailey and his staff finally completed work on public records requests submitted in 2021.

“We fulfilled the last remaining open request from 2021, of which there were 18 when Attorney General Bailey came into office,” said Madeline Sieren, Bailey’s spokeswoman. “We have fulfilled 32 requests in the last seven business days.”

Yet that progress did little to dent the number of unfilled requests in a massive backlog that continues to tick upwards and has translated into yearslong waits for even simple queries to be answered and the public’s documents to be turned over.

As of Saturday, the attorney general’s office confirmed it was still processing 397 records requests. That’s up from 374 in June and 389 last month, despite recently adding a third full-time staff member dedicated solely to processing Sunshine requests.

A fourth staffer is expected to join the effort, though an ad for the position notes the attorney hired would “maintain a part-time case load from the governmental affairs section.”

Similar backlogs don’t appear to exist in any other branch of state government.

“Maybe the situation will improve once they have made the anticipated hires and get them up to speed. We can hope,” said David Roland, director of litigation for the libertarian nonprofit Freedom Center of Missouri. “But as of right now, I remain skeptical that the steps being taken are likely to be adequate to clear this backlog in a meaningful timeframe.”

The logjam has resulted in every request to Bailey’s office, no matter how small, being punted for months or longer. Bailey’s office has insisted on working through requests as they are received, meaning large, cumbersome inquiries are bogging down the process while newer, simpler ones await any action at all.

For example, The Independent requested three days of the attorney general’s official calendar last week. Government agencies typically turn over those records within days of a request being filed.

Bailey’s office says the records won’t be made public until March 25, 2024.

“How does the attorney general explain that his office cannot meet the demand for services it is supposed to provide?” said Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association. “When an office holder says, ‘we are overwhelmed by requests that we are required by state law to answer,’ it would seem to be an indication that the office holder isn’t in control of procedures within that office.”

The attorney general’s office is also the entity that’s supposed to make sure other government entities comply with open records and open meetings laws. Every government agency handles its own requests.

The slow response from the attorney general’s office to requests for the office’s own records has renewed scrutiny of how the revolving door of attorneys general over the last five years has handled the job of enforcing government transparency laws across the board.

As the backlog persists, Bailey has drawn criticism for his work as general counsel for Gov. Mike Parson, where he helped craft a proposal to allow government agencies to withhold more information from the public and charge more for any records that are turned over.

For his part, Bailey has denied having any sort of adversarial relationship with the Sunshine Law.

“Attorney General Bailey is committed to transparency and has dedicated more resources to providing Missourians with their records than any previous attorney general,” Sieren said in an email to The Independent.

Beyond Bailey, Missouri was forced to pay $240,000 in legal fees and a $12,000 fine earlier this year after a judge concluded the attorney general’s office knowingly and purposefully concealed public records under Josh Hawley in order to bolster his successful 2018 campaign for U.S. Senate.

And when Eric Schmitt resigned as attorney general in January to follow Hawley to the Senate, Bailey’s office says it inherited 224 unprocessed records requests.

As many as 90 of those requests could be related to an avalanche of inquiries for information about Hawley last spring by the Democratic National Committee.

The DNC asked for records of funds spent to renovate office space, copies of Hawley’s credit card statements, text messages and cell phone bills for top staffers and other records, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which reported on the requests at the time.

It’s unclear how much of the backlog stems from these wide-ranging requests. The Independent asked in June for a copy of the attorney general office’s sunshine log — a list or spreadsheet that most government offices maintain that documents pending records requests — and was informed it couldn’t be turned over until December.

Chris Nuelle, spokesman for Schmitt’s U.S. Senate office, said in an email to The Independent that the former attorney general tried to ensure the transition to Bailey was smooth.

“In his previous role,” Nuelle said, “Sen. Schmitt and his team worked diligently to ensure that all Sunshine Law requests were fulfilled in a timely manner and that proper and constant communication occurred between the office and the requestor.”

Maneke noted that Aug. 23 marked the 50th anniversary of the Missouri Sunshine Law.

She wonders if government agencies are seeing a higher volume of requests for records because “the citizens of Missouri, whether Democrats or Republicans, have come to recognize the importance of using that law to access public information.

“Missourians clearly are big believers in accessing and using public information,” she said. “More so than other states? More than ever before in the history of Missouri? I don’t have numbers to support either of these conclusions. But clearly public information is something folks in this state want.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Jason Hancock is a reporter covering politics and policy for The Missouri Independent.