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House moves to strengthen Missouri’s open records laws

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Attorney General’s Office would have the power to issue subpoenas in Sunshine Law investigation under legislation approved by the House.

With strong bipartisan support, a 147-1 sent a bill strengthening the state’s open records law to the Senate. Rep. David Gregory’s HB 2523 — which was combined in committee with Rep. Jean Evans HB 2524 — creates the division of transparency within the AGO, increases penalties for violating the law in addition to authorizing the AGO to issue investigative subpoenas in the course of its public-records investigations.

“This bill seeks to strengthen our Sunshine Law,” said Gregory. “Right now if the Attorney General wants to investigative an agency for a violation of the Sunshine Law, the Attorney General is completely at the will or cooperation of that agency they are investigating. That’s just wrong.”

A civil investigative demand requires such person to appear and testify, or to produce relevant documentary material or physical evidence or examination, at such reasonable time and place as may be stated in the civil investigative demand, according to Missouri statute.

Under the legislation, people or agencies that knowingly violated the state’s Sunshine law could be fined up to $10,000 per violation, in addition to potentially having to cover attorneys’ fees. Accidental violators could be fined up to $1,000, plus fees.

The AGO’s Transparency Division would be work only on cases relating to the state’s open-records laws. This is to ensure separation between attorneys investigating and defending public agencies.

“This is a good bill,” Rep. Jon Carpenter said. “But I think it could go further.”

He also expressed concern that will the bill moving so late in session, it was being used as a political tool after Josh Hawley’s investigation into the governor’s use of the Confide app. Gregory said that wasn’t the case, citing the bill had been in development before that.

Passage by the House was applauded by Hawley, who called it a commonsense measure to update and improve Missouri’s laws.

“Transparency in our government is an essential part of democracy—and my Office must have the tools to ensure our Sunshine and records-retention laws are followed,” Hawley said. “This legislation will better empower my Office to investigate Sunshine Law complaints and strengthen the penalties for violations. My thanks to Reps. David Gregory and Jean Evans for their hard work on this. I encourage the Senate to continue its important work and pass this legislation swiftly.”

The bill is now in the Senate with a month left in session. Evans said there is a determination to see the bill to become law, saying it is “on the fast track.