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Firing at MOHELA came after private talks, paper reports


Columbia, MO – Newly released documents in a lawsuit over Missouri's student loan agency, MOHELA, show four members of MOHELAs board held one-on-one discussions leading up to last January's firing of the agency's director.

The director, Michael Cummins, was fired after voicing opposition to Gov. Matt Blunt's plan to sell the agency.

The documents are connected to Attorney General Jay Nixon's lawsuit alleging MOHELA of violating the state's open meetings law, according to a report in the Columbia Daily Tribune on Wednesday.

Lawyers for former MOHELA board member James Mauze prepared the documents in response to questions from Nixon's office.

According to the documents, Cummins was under board orders to go to Jefferson City to explore rumors about the possible sale of MOHELA but not to lobby for or against it. The documents said that because Cummins violated the board's directives, the four members believed he should be replaced.

In addition to discussing Cummins' performance, Mauze faxed to the three other board members copies of resolutions to fire Cummins and a step-by-step process for how it should be carried out, according to the documents. Together, those four constituted a majority of the seven-member board.

The minutes of the board's Jan. 24 meeting show that Mauze and the three other members James Ricks, Kathryn Swan and Gregory Fitch all voted to fire Cummins. Three other members opposed it.

None of the four members voting for the firing is still on the board.

Nixon sued the MOHELA board in February, alleging 12 violations of the state's Open Meetings and Records Law between Jan. 20-31, as the agency sought to develop a response to Blunt's plan. In addition to accusing the board of conducting public business behind closed doors, the lawsuit said board members and staff illegally exchanged information in a series of e-mails and telephone calls.

Board members have denied breaking the open meetings law, and the agency is fighting Nixon's lawsuit. The Tribune obtained copies of some of the documents filed in the case through an open records request to Nixon's office.

Jean Maneke, an attorney who specializes in open meetings and records issues for the Missouri Press Association, said one-on-one conversations are usually not seen as a violation of the Sunshine Law. However, there is language in some court decisions indicating it could be found to be a violation if it seemed designed to circumvent the law.

"Given the right set of facts, a court might find that you can't orchestrate a decision of the quorum of the board that way, through one-on-one discussions," Maneke said.

After Cummins was fired, the MOHELA staff proposed an alternative to Blunt's plan that would have sold off a significant portion of the agency's student loans but still allowed it function.

Blunt wants to use MOHELA's assets to fund construction projects at state colleges and universities. A spending plan for the MOHELA money failed during the legislative session that ended in May.

But Blunt and the MOHELA board have endorsed a revised plan that would direct $350 million in MOHELA money to public colleges and universities over six years. That plan is expected to go before the Legislature next year.