KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City officials argue that lying to the media is not against the law and should not be the basis of a whistleblower complaint filed against the city by its former top spokesperson.
The city filed a motion in Jackson County Circuit Court last week seeking the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by Chris Hernandez, the city’s former communications director. In his suit, Hernandez alleged that he was demoted for refusing to lie to the Star and other local news organizations about city projects and services at the behest of City Manager Brian Platt.
In its motion, the city argues that lying to the press is not a violation of any law, rule or regulation.
“Despite the respected place that the press has as the fourth estate of American politics, there is no law concerning false disclosures to the press,” the city’s motion reads. “Nor is there a rule or regulation set forth by any governmental entity, including the city, that governs false disclosures to the press.”
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In his original lawsuit, Hernandez said he was “not willing to put his credibility on the line” for Platt, alleging the city manager instructed staff to lie as part of a “media strategy.”
Hernandez is suing the city for damages under a Missouri law that protects whistleblowers, saying he lost his job for telling Platt that he “should not be dishonest to the news media and the public.” But the city’s motion argues that Hernandez does not meet the definition of a whistleblower under Missouri law and asks for dismissal of the lawsuit.
Whistleblower laws protect employees who disclose information about prohibited activities, the city argues, and Hernandez only relayed his opinions to Platt.
“To be clear, the city does not endorse lying to the press, nor did it lie, but even if it does and it did, such an act is not a violation of any law, rule, or regulation and it does not qualify as a disclosure” under Missouri law, the city’s filing reads.
The city’s filing also notes that Hernandez has not accused the city manager of lying to the media.
“At best — and something the city will vehemently deny if required to do so through litigation — Mr. Platt asked why he couldn’t lie to the media,” the city’s motion reads.
The city’s response did not deter the plaintiff.
“I feel confident we can overcome the motion to dismiss,” said Lynne Jaben Bratcher, the attorney representing Hernandez.
The lawsuit stemmed from the city’s communication strategy regarding street resurfacing and pothole repairs.
In the lawsuit, Hernandez alleged that Platt called a meeting with communications employees at his downtown office in January 2022 and discussed strategies for handling Kansas City news media. During that meeting, Platt allegedly raised the prospect of lying as a “legitimate media strategy.”
In the spring, the city communications team prepared a press release regarding how many miles of city streets would be resurfaced based on funds available in the upcoming fiscal year.
A drafted press release stated “nearly 300” lane miles, according to the lawsuit; Platt had the communications team remove the word “nearly.” Days before the event, the lawsuit alleges Platt knowingly inflated the benefits of the project on social media by saying the city would be repaving “400 plus” lane miles.
“Our summer of street resurfacing is well under way. 400+ miles planned for this spring and summer! But what’s under the old asphalt is sometimes something more special: 100+ year old brick pavers and original street car track here on Brooklyn Ave!” Platt wrote in a May 6 Twitter post.
Hernandez alleges that he was concerned the city manager was lying about this number, as no other staff were aware of an increase in the miles to be paved.
The lawsuit also referenced a May story in The Star regarding the city’s work on potholes. Hernandez claims Platt was angry about the story, and instructed staff to call the newspaper and say that “the numbers were wrong” when they were actually correct.
During a meeting at a Kansas City coffee shop, Hernandez says in his lawsuit, he was asked by Platt why another member of the communications team had resigned and other staff members were leaving. Hernandez says he told Platt many were upset with the way they were being treated.
The following month, the lawsuit says, Hernandez was told by Platt that he did not possess the “shared vision” for the communications department and was reassigned.
Hernandez, a former television reporter who worked in the city communications department for a decade, is now a special liaison officer in the city’s civil rights and equal opportunity department.
The Star’s Bill Lukitsch contributed to this story.