A lot has changed since the lawsuit was filed in January 2018 in St. Louis County Circuit Court. Hawley defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in November and now resides in Washington. And, in less than one week, Stenger will report to a federal prison camp in South Dakota after pleading guilty in a sweeping pay-to-play case.
The Sunshine Law complaint survived that drama and appears to be headed for a final disposition. A memo filed in the case by Judge Kristine Kerr on Monday set a Nov. 12 date to revisit the case and said the parties were “discussing a possible resolution” and “exchanging documents towards that end.”
The allegations in Hawley’s lawsuit — that Stenger’s staff routinely violated a state law designed to guarantee public access to government records — were trumped by revelations in the federal case against Stenger that he steered contracts to campaign donors, arranged bribes and threatened staff members who refused to go along with his schemes. That case also revealed efforts by Stenger and others to mislead a reporter investigating county contracts.
Lawyers for the attorney general’s office declined to discuss what a resolution might look like. A lawyer representing the county could not be reached.Sam Page, who became the St. Louis County executive after Stenger’s resignation on April 29, has frequently pointed to Stenger’s secrecy and lies, and promised to change the secretive culture in county government.
Asked on Monday how Page’s office would respond now that it’s a defendant in the suit, Page’s spokesman Doug Moore said in a text that “Stenger took pride in hiding public information. We take pride in sharing it. We continue to work on bringing the County into compliance with its obligations under the Sunshine Law. The lawsuit against Stenger was well-grounded in the law, and we are working with the Attorney General to clarify what else we can do to set a new standard for transparency in county government.”
Hawley’s lawsuit cited several times when Stenger’s aides failed to properly respond to requests from Post-Dispatch journalists and others to view public records. It asked the court to assess civil penalties and up to $1,000 for each knowing violation and $5,000 for each purposeful violation, or further relief as the court finds appropriate.
The suit alleged that Stenger’s staff violated the law by failing to provide timely responses to record requests, provide access to public records and disclose the name of the records custodian. Post-Dispatch stories documented several instances when Stenger’s staff members delayed responses to the newspaper’s requests for access.
At the time of the suit, Stenger said the lawsuit was a “transparent attempt by the Republican attorney general to score political points” in his campaign to unseat McCaskill. And he said there was a “difference between responses to Sunshine requests that the Post-Dispatch may not happen to like and those which are not in compliance with the law.”
Jean Maneke, lawyer for the Missouri Press Association said it would be a “travesty” if the attorney general’s office under Hawley’s successor, Eric Schmitt, let up on the suit merely because Stenger was gone.
“It’s a sad state of affairs when it takes the attorney general filing a lawsuit to get a public official’s attention to their duties under the Sunshine Law,” she said. “I guarantee you there are dozens of citizens in this state who day-by-day have the same thing happen to them and they don’t have the money to pay for a private lawyer to file a lawsuit like this.”
“It’s going to take a court or several courts imposing some significant fines on a public body to make some public officials wake up to the fact that they have an obligation to the public under our Sunshine Law.”