Lou Leonatti and his son were at Mark Twain Lake in north-central Missouri preparing for a day of bass fishing. The boat was in the water and they were about to step in when Leonatti’s phone rang.
On the line was Judge Richard Callahan in Cole County, and he had an assignment for the respected attorney from Mexico, Mo.
It was July 2008 and Leonatti was about to embark on a historic mission. Callahan was appointing him as the attorney for two special investigators who were trying to determine whether the administration of Gov. Matt Blunt was destroying emails in violation of state record retention laws.
The case was fraught with political drama.
The investigators — both ex-state patrol officers— had been appointed by Attorney General Jay Nixon, a Democrat who was expected to face Blunt, a Republican, in the next election for governor. The investigators filed a lawsuit against Blunt, in part because it was clear that the governor’s chief of staff, Ed Martin, was destroying emails. But the investigators needed their own attorneys, so in came Leonatti, a Republican who nearly became a federal judge, and former Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, a Democrat who also practiced law in Mexico.
In the end, the investigators found that state laws — both record retention and open records — had been violated. In a separate but related lawsuit, the Post-Dispatch, Associated Press and Kansas City Star obtained more than 60,000 emails from the Blunt administration.
As the cases came to an end, Leonatti came to a conclusion about those state laws:
They were broken.
“It’s got to be brought into the 21st Century,” Leonatti said of the Sunshine Law, which exists to hold government officials accountable. “We really need some help from the Legislature.”
Nearly a decade later, the law remains mostly unchanged, and technology is advancing far beyond the law’s capabilities to stop wayward government officials from doing their business in the dark.
And Missouri’s political history appears poised to repeat itself.
This month, the Kansas City Star revealed that Gov. Eric Greitens and key members of his staff are using an app on their personal phones called “Confide” that erases text messages immediately after they are read. This might be fine if Greitens and his staff were merely using their phones to trade tips on their fantasy football teams, but in today’s politics, that’s unlikely.
State Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, is calling on Attorney General Josh Hawley, who like Greitens is a Republican, to investigate whether there has been a violation of Sunshine Law or records retention laws by the governor or his staff by destroying texts that may be required to be saved as public records. At first, Hawley balked, saying that he couldn’t investigate the governor’s office because he represents it in litigation.
Then somebody must have reminded the young ladder-climbing former law professor of the Blunt case. Now Hawley says he’s considering whether it’s appropriate for him to appoint a special investigator.
As soon as Leonatti read about the situation, he thought back to 2008. The circumstances and issues are similar, he believes.
“If they’re talking about appointments to commissions, or the budget deficit, or those kinds of things, they would be subject to the open records law,” Leonatti says of the texts. “I don’t think we really know enough about what’s going on at this point.”
One of the reasons the investigation into the Blunt emails was so important was because of what it told us about state government. More than 10 years ago it had already become standard practice for politicians to use personal and campaign email accounts and phones to try to bypass public disclosure laws. That’s not a Democrat or Republican problem. It’s an American problem.
For citizens to hold public officials accountable, the laws have to catch up with today’s technology.
“I don’t think there is any doubt about the fact that the Sunshine Law is broken in several ways,” Leonatti says. “It didn’t even contemplate text messages.”
Or apps that make text messages disappear.
Of course, back in 2008, Martin thought that just by deleting emails they went away. That wasn’t the case. Key to breaking the Blunt email investigation was a retired military veteran who worked in the information technology department in the state Office of Administration. He ended up meeting with investigators and explaining that the state computer system had extensive backups, and he had saved the tapes that included all of the emails sought by both investigators and reporters.
“He was very helpful to us,” Leonatti remembers.
Those emails today sit in 22 cardboard boxes in a storage area on the third floor of the Post-Dispatch building, a reminder that the attorney general — if he does his job — can hold the governor of the state of Missouri accountable to the people.