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The Missouri Legislature is challenging new Sunshine Law stipulations under Clean Missouri.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Tony Messenger examined the current challenges in a Jan. 20 column that attracted the attention of state Rep. Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold.
Vescovo responded to the article in a tweet on Jan. 21, saying, "My statement. Funny that the article references Aaron Malin, who sunshined my records while I served on the #Jeffcomo Port Authority. The democrat director turned over my SS#, DL# and all private info. We can't let that happen to our constituents. #moleg"
Missouri law sets limits on what can be released under the Sunshine Law. RS-MO 610.021 authorizes the state to redact personal information from documents released to the public under Missouri Sunshine laws.
It seemed surprising that Vescovo’s information would be released through a Sunshine request of the Jefferson County Port Authority. So we reached out to Vescovo to learn more.
Once we finished our reporting, we decided not to rate this claim on the Truth-O-Meter. We confirmed that his personal information was turned over in a public records request, but we’re still missing several key details, including when it happened and the nature of the request. Additionally, we found no evidence that it was done with a partisan motivation. The current Port Authority director called it a mistake.
Vescovo served on the executive board of the Port Authority from 2011 to 2015. He didn’t have a record of the documents released, so we reached out to the Port Authority.
Neal Breitweiser, its current executive director, was concerned about the allegations against his organization. Vescovo’s service on the Port Authority was before Breitweiser was appointed to his current position.
After speaking with the current president and vice president of the Port Authority, Breitweiser confirmed that Vescovo’s information was released, but he didn’t have the documents in Port Authority records.
The Jefferson County Port Authority was originally under the command of the Economic Development Corporation of Jefferson County, and the mistake was during that time.
Vescovo specifically cited Aaron Malin in the tweet as the requester of records. Malin is a St. Louis-based activist and recent graduate of the University of Denver law school. When we reached Malin via Facebook, he said he didn’t have records dating back that far. However, he had no memory of any records violating the law by releasing sensitive information.
"If I ever had his personal information, I no longer have it," Malin said over Facebook Messenger. "I’ve submitted nearly 1,000 Sunshine requests over the last eight years…I can’t confirm that I never saw such a mistake. If I did notice disclosure of sensitive personal information, yes, I’d notify the custodian of records, and I would delete the information from the records."
Malin has submitted Sunshine requests all over Missouri, mostly to police departments and other enforcement programs to learn about drug enforcement. He says he doesn’t remember exactly why he requested Port Authority information.
Finally, we wanted to explore a bit more about Vescovo’s support of an idea to allow lawmakers to exempt certain files from Sunshine laws. The law specifies a "constituent case file" as "any correspondence, written or electronic, between a member and a constituent, or between a member and any other party pertaining to a constituent’s grievance, a question of eligibility for any benefit as it relates to a particular constituent, or any issue regarding a constituent’s request for assistance."
Dave Roland, director of the Freedom Center of Missouri, a non-profit law firm dedicated to protecting individual freedoms in Missouri, explained that Vescovo’s tweet was initially in response to the arguments that Clean Missouri’s new stipulations would put constituents’ personal information at risk. Sometimes, when constituents contact lawmakers about an issue they have with the laws in their district, they share personal information, such as their Medicaid coverage or other sensitive information.
However, Roland argues the state is "using a bazooka to kill a fly." Instead of crafting a reasonable exemption to protect individual citizens’ correspondence that contains sensitive facts, some in the state legislature want to exempt a huge swath of records.
The amendment allows a representative to redact anything that, in their opinion, might put shared information at risk.
"The amendments weren’t subject to public hearings (when they were drafted)," Roland continues. "Citizens need to know how government officials are making decisions. It’s dangerous to cut off opportunities for citizens to find out."
Facebook messages with Aaron Malin. Feb. 5, 2019.
Phone interview with Dave Roland, 15 Feb. 2019.
"The Sunshine Law." Missouri Sunshine Law, edited by Eric Schmitt, State of Missouri, 2019, pp. 30-71, ago.mo.gov/docs/default-source/publications/missourisunshinelaw.pdf?sfvrsn=20. Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s "Missouri Sunshine Law" book, 6 Feb. 2019.
Personal interview with Rob Vescovo, Feb. 13 2019.