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Missouri 99th General Assembly opens for 2017

Missouri Governor Elect Eric Greitens declines to take questions from reporters as he walks down the hallway of the capital building during the opening day of the 99th General Assembly in Jefferson City on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2016. Photo by David Carson,

JEFFERSON CITY • In mid-November, Gov. Eric Greitens trekked to the Lone Star State for the Republican Governors Association annual convention in Austin.

There was no official announcement of his absence from Missouri, which was typical. Greitens rarely reveals his daily activities, unless he wants to highlight them after they occur.

At the two-day political event, Greitens participated in a panel discussion titled “Disrupting the Mainstream Media,” in which governors discussed ways to bypass traditional reporting outlets and take their messages straight to social media.

Since taking office in January, Greitens has made no excuses for practicing exactly that. The political newcomer has unveiled official announcements on Facebook and Twitter and has held far fewer traditional news conferences than his predecessors.

In some cases, he and his staff have let questions about major issues facing the state go unanswered, leaving residents in the dark about his positions on a variety of topics.

Bob Priddy, who covered 11 governors as a reporter for Missourinet, said he’s never seen such a clampdown on information.

“It’s like he’s sitting in a bunker and lobbing things out. It’s not good for the office,” said Priddy, who began reporting in the 1960s during former Gov. John Dalton’s tenure. “Having an administration that’s not even returning telephone calls ... We’ve never had anything like that.”

Greitens’ lone taxpayer-paid spokesman, Parker Briden, was an undergraduate at the University of Missouri last year when he left school to help the political newcomer’s campaign. Since moving to his offices in the Capitol, Briden has left many of the governor’s positions on issues unaddressed.

He often does not return voice mail messages, emails or text messages from reporters who regularly cover the governor’s office.

The dearth of information, however, has not stopped reporters, attorneys and members of the public from asking.

In Greitens’ first year in office, the administration has received more than 150 open-records requests seeking public information from the office of the governor.

An analysis of those requests shows that more than 1 in 4 sought basic information that could have been provided by a spokesperson without the legal hoops outlined by the state’s Sunshine Law.

For example, of the 128 requests that have been processed, 20 were for copies of Greitens’ daily schedule.

An additional 17 requests were for the salaries and titles of people who work in the governor’s office. Money for the salaries comes from taxpayers.

Jean Maneke, attorney for the Missouri Press Association, said the requests are odd because much of that information is available on a computer that could be quickly accessed by an office staffer without asking the journalist to file a records request. She said Greitens’ inexperience as an elected official could be one factor.

“Why does it take so much longer to get it from this governor than it does from that governor?” Maneke said. “This is someone who isn’t used to dealing with the bureaucracies of government. It shows the lack of experience of his staff.”

A number of requests focused on Greitens’ management of his social media accounts, upon which he largely relies to spread his message.

At least 10 requests were made for information showing whom Greitens is blocking on his Facebook account. Resulting reporting on the issue forced Greitens to create official government accounts for Facebook and Twitter. Yet, he still relies primarily on his private accounts to share his opinions.

Six requests sought information about how Greitens financed his January inaugural celebration. Although he released a list of donors, the governor broke with tradition and refused to reveal how much each donor contributed and how much was spent on the festivities overall.

In all, the office that handles Sunshine Law requests is receiving about 14 requests a month. Records show many of them are closed — with information either released or withheld under an exemption in state law — relatively quickly.

Others have lingered unanswered for months. Some of the pending requests go back to last year, when reporters were seeking to determine whether there was coordination between the campaign team and the governor-elect.

And, although many of the requests are for mundane subjects such as the governor’s schedule, his office is beginning to demand payment for the records based on the time and material it says are necessary to compile them.

In a recent Post-Dispatch request for email records, the office wanted $174 for processing fees and said the records could take as many as 120 working days to compile.

A request for Greitens’ daily calendar took more than two weeks and cost $45.

Maneke said the waiting period seems excessive.

“It’s a little puzzling to me why that information requires search time. With computers, that kind of information ought to be at somebody’s fingertips,” she said. “I assume they track his schedule much more closely than my own.”

Priddy, who retired in 2014, said Greitens’ attitude toward transparency is the culmination of a decades-long trend of governors limiting access to public information.

Under Gov. Warren Hearnes, reporters could walk into the governor’s office and typically talk with the chief executive if he was not busy. Thirty years later, that access began to change under Gov. Bob Holden. Priddy said former Gov. Jay Nixon largely closed off access to information, but his staff members, unlike Greitens’, were generally willing to answer questions.

Under Greitens, a lock has been installed on the door to Briden's office. And, the Kansas City Star has reported that key figures in the governor's office are using a special app that deletes text messages after they've been read, potentially violating state open records laws.

“It’s been getting worse and worse and worse,” Priddy said. “But I’ve never seen a governor like this.”

Sunshine Law performance under Greitens

  • Open records requests filed through Nov. 16: 151
  • Number of requests processed and closed: 128
  • Total requests still pending: 23
  • Oldest pending request: Nov. 29, 2016
  • Most common request: Scheduling and calendar records

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Kurt Erickson is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch