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Controversial out of state political group fails to register before suing Missourians

Boone County, Mo. — A legal battle between the Missouri School Boards’ Association (MSBA) and the Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF) could come to a halt over SLF’s failure to register to do business in Missouri.

The MSBA, the defendant in this case, filed a motion to stay the lawsuit on the grounds of SLF’s failure to obtain a certificate of authority from the Missouri Secretary of State Thursday. SLF is suing the MSBA over alleged Sunshine Law violations, in tandem with the Attorney General’s office.

The motion filed today states that SLF has done business in Missouri by representing individuals in the state, lobbying the Attorney General’s office and soliciting donations from individuals in the state.

SLF’s lack of authority to do business is notable, as the national political interest group has recently taken aim at Missouri school districts, suing the Springfield School District, among other Missourians.

The foundation was apparently successful in lobbying Attorney General Eric Schmitt to assist them in their fundraising efforts using lawsuits against Missourians. Schmitt and SLF were in contact for months before both suing the MSBA, the Missouri Independent reported.

The out of state group successfully lobbied Schmitt to investigate the Webster Groves Missouri School District in May over surveys designed to curb student suicide that SLF’s lobbying effort deemed “illegal.” Schmitt submitted to the out of state group’s lobbying and subpoenaed Webster Groves School District in May.

Charles Hatfield is the attorney representing the MSBA in both cases against the SLF and Attorney General. In his view, registering is necessary to ensure SLF is transparent and can be held accountable as it continues to flex its legal muscles in the Show-Me State.

“If they ever do anything wrong in the state, people can’t find them. like every other Missouri Corporation, there is an address on file with the Secretary. So you know who it is that is working in the state,” Hatfield said on a phone call. “You get these — what’s called a foreign corporation, meaning a company in another state — you don’t really necessarily know who you’re dealing with or what they’re doing. So the law makes them register.”

The added contact information on file is expected to help contact SLF and hold them accountable, as opposed to letting them put up a corporate front.

Once SLF gains a certificate of authority, the suit against MSBA is expected to resume. Hatfield thinks the future of the trial will answer an interesting question and set a precedent on Sunshine Law enforcement for non-profit entities in Missouri.

Government entities and non-profit entities formed by the government are considered beholden to Sunshine Laws. The MSBA is a non-profit entity that was not formed by and is not part of the government, but has become the target of the out of state group and some activists within the Attorney General’s Office.

“Our first position is because they weren’t formed under the government that the law doesn’t even apply to them. I think we got to figure that out,” Hatfield said. “If we’re wrong about that, then we get into this more detailed analysis of what the purpose is for which they exist.”

The outcome of the case will set a precedent going forward for how Sunshine Laws are interpreted as they apply to non-government entities in Missouri.

“The Attorney General and the Southeastern Legal Foundation seem to think that because they have a lot of members who are government officials themselves, in our case the School Board Association, that makes them subject to the Sunshine Law,” Hatfield said.

“If that’s right, that’s an issue for the Sheriffs’ Association, the Missouri Association of Counties, the Missouri Municipal League, et cetera,” he added.

The SLF has not been without controversy. Their previous President Matt Glavin resigned, after his second public indecency charge for performing sex acts inside public restrooms in state parks on the east coast.

SLF’s sudden and very active presence in Missouri have raised some questions of the motives of the out-of-state special interest group. In Hatfield’s view, they’re jumping into an opportune situation driven by political aspirations in pursuit of donations.

“It’s more evidence that really what what’s happening here is all about politics. It’s an attempt to create a political issue, you know, that people can talk about in their fundraising or in their appearances on TV, and that there’s really not some policy interest here,” Hatfield said. “I think this is all just very, very political, and it’s not the right way to use the Sunshine Law.”

Missouri’s Attorney General Eric Schmitt is running for U.S. Senate in 2022, raising suspicions that Schmitt has repeatedly sued schools districts in Missouri in an effort to gain political momentum.

“I have no doubt that the Attorney General would not have brought this lawsuit if he weren’t not running for US Senate … it is related to his campaign for US Senate. And I think that’s the main motivator,” Hatfield said. “I think that the Attorney General did it (sued MSBA) for political reasons, and SLF is just piling on. They see an opportunity to brag about it on their website. I mean, if you go to their website they’re out there trying to raise money. They want people to donate to them.”

“They file these lawsuits, they make, a splash out of it and tell people that they’re out there fighting for whatever cause they’re fighting for, and then try to raise money. There are a lot of entities out there doing that just trying to work people up to line their own pockets. So it’s not unusual, that doesn’t make it right,” he added.

Featured Image: Webster Groves High School in Webster Southeastern Legal Foundation