Lawmakers say they're exempt from Sunshine Law

Lawmakers say the law only applies to public governmental bodies.
Katie Currid / Graphic Designer

Missouri legislators require government groups and organizations to abide by laws aimed at government transparency, but one House leader said the law does not apply to him individually and has used that interpretation to keep documents from the press.

House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, concealed documents outlining the consequences of potential state budget cuts by transferring the documents from his committee, which is under the law's jurisdiction, to himself, where he has sole judgment.

As the economy weakened in December, Icet and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, sent a letter to state agencies asking them to come up with ways to cut their state appropriations 15 to 25 percent. The letter said these responses were to be sent to the Senate and House appropriation staffs. Those responses suggested grim changes could be in store if budgets were cut too deeply.

In the documents obtained by The Associated Press, the Missouri Department of Education stated cutbacks could result in layoffs, rising class sizes and increased tuition at state universities.

Other departments, like Corrections and Mental Health and Senior Services told reporters seeking their responses through Sunshine Law requests to turn to the appropriations committees, thereby directing them to Icet and Nodler.

Icet told the AP the reports were in his possession, not the committee's and thus were not covered by the Sunshine Law. He said responses from those state agencies could cause unnecessary distress among state workers.

After the AP filed several Sunshine Law requests, Nodler transferred his copies of the records back to the committee, which provided them to reporters.

Charles Davis, an MU journalism professor and National Freedom of Information Coalition executive director, said the text of the law does not make a clear distinction between people and committees. He said the legislature had made its own interpretation.

"What you have is state legislators deciding where it suits them and when it suits them," Davis said.

The reports revealed the Department of Mental Health would need to release 160 violent sexual predators monitored only by GPS trackers to cut its budget by 15 percent and that a 25 percent cut in funding for the Department of Health and Senior Services could prevent almost 400 people from receiving HIV medications.

The Missouri House and Senate said the state's Sunshine Law applies to legislative committees, their staffs and the legislature as a whole but not to legislators themselves.

National Newspaper Association Executive Director Brian Steffens said the law was unclear but that the narrow interpretation could be challenged.

"I think it's disingenuous move for the legislators," Steffens said.

Any public governmental body is interpreted to include legislative groups set up by the state Constitution and laws, as well as any local ordinance. This includes the legislature as a whole because the Missouri Constitution created the General Assembly as an institution.

House General Counsel Don Lograsso, a former Republican legislator from Blue Springs, cites a 2003 ruling by the state Supreme Court involving the St. Louis School Board, where the court said the school board president was not a "public governmental body" and thus not subject to the Sunshine Law.

Lograsso said he had made arrangements for the AP to list which reports it needed from the agencies and had the reports copied and sent over by Icet's committee the next week. The reporter then obtained the copies from Nodler's committee before Icet could send him the copies.

Lograsso said the court's decision to make the law apply to groups instead of people applies to the legislature just as validly as it does the school board.

"We follow the ruling that legislators cannot be governmental bodies," Lograsso said. "We treat individual legislators exactly as the court said we should."

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