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Journalist accused by Gov. Parson speaks out: ‘He’s done me wrong’

Josh Renaud is a journalist and developer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Alex Heuer
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist Josh Renaud says a prosecutor's decision to not file charges comes as relief but does not undo the harm.

Josh Renaud was in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newsroom when Missouri Gov. Mike Parson stepped to a lectern in Jefferson City last October. His colleagues had gathered to watch a video feed of Parson’s remarks. Renaud didn’t.

“Whatever it was going to be, I knew it was something I didn’t want to hear,” he said.

One day before, Renaud had published an exposé revealing that a website maintained by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education left vulnerable the Social Security numbers of educators throughout the state.

Renaud knew the governor wasn’t happy — but he didn’t realize how unhappy until he heard gasps from the other side of the newsroom.

Parson accused the Post-Dispatch of pursuing a political vendetta. Then he announced a criminal investigation into what he called a “hack.”

“We will not let this crime against Missouri teachers go unpunished,” he announced.

“Being singled out by the state executive and being called a criminal and having him direct an investigation into my conduct — I could not have expected that, and I didn’t expect it,” Renaud said. “It was a complete shock.”

After all, Renaud had informed the department of the vulnerability days before and promised to delay publishing the story until the problem was fixed. Before Parson’s accusations, state officials had even planned to thank Renaud for discovering the vulnerability.

Renaud is still guarded about the ordeal. The Missouri Highway Patrol’s investigation hasn’t been made public.

Yet Renaud can now breathe a little easier. Last Friday, Cole County Prosecutor Locke Thompson announced that he would not file charges. “Upon a review of the case file, the issues at the heart of the investigation have been resolved through non-legal means,” Thompson wrote.

In a statement, Parson continued to call Renaud’s discovery of the vulnerability a “hack.” But Renaud said he continues to hope the governor will make the situation right. He said he is hoping for an apology.

“The window is still open for this situation to flip around,” Renaud said on St. Louis on the Air. “I feel like the governor is really missing an opportunity here to change the public discourse, and to change the way the politics are done in the state.”

Even so, he said he sees a bigger picture.

“We cannot allow political officials to persecute journalists for doing or publishing things that they don't like,” Renaud said. “I think that the whole issue of [Parson] using his power to investigate a journalist who exercises First Amendment rights, and did everything, above board and by the book, that in itself is a separate thing. And I feel like that's wrong.”

Listen: Journalist Josh Renaud says Gov. Parson should apologize

Normally a behind-the-scenes guy, Renaud has spent most of his career in journalism helping to package work that carries other people’s bylines — first as a page designer and now as a developer. He acknowledged that the ordeal has caused sleepless nights and a lot of anxiety. In addition to the threat of criminal prosecution, Renaud said he was afraid someone might be spurred by Parson’s words to come after him. He was relieved when that didn’t happen, saying he’d instead received an outpouring of support from people across the state, and even the country.

In some ways, he said, if it had to happen, he’s happy it happened to him and not a colleague. “You hate to see somebody else go through something like this,” he said. “I think about my kids — like when bad things happen to them, you wish it on yourself. In that sense, if it had to happen to somebody, it might as well have been me.”

Renaud said he relied on his faith to get him through the past four months. In the statement he released after learning charges would not be filed, he referenced Matthew 5:44, which calls for Christians to “pray for those who … persecute you.” Renaud said he has tried to pray for Parson

“It’s not easy and I'm not consistent with it,” he said. “But I have been, yeah, from the beginning.”

Their shared faith is one reason Renaud believes Parson needs to apologize.

“He professes to be a Christian,” Renaud said of Parson. “And he’s done me wrong. I think this is a chance for him to show what it looks like when a leader is willing to admit a mistake, and is willing to make it right.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.