Hartmann: Eric Schmitt's Lawsuit Over School Records Shows Hypocrisy

click to enlarge Eric Schmitt is suing Rockwood Schools over Sunshine Law violations, but he has defended Gov. Parson for committing similar violations. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Eric Schmitt is suing Rockwood Schools over Sunshine Law violations, but he has defended Gov. Parson for committing similar violations.

For one fleeting moment, Eric Schmitt has landed on the side of democracy.  

Schmitt, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who moonlights as Missouri’s attorney general, has filed a lawsuit against the Rockwood School District. The suit claims that the district did not follow the Sunshine Law in response to a request for public emails.

Schmitt did the right thing for the wrong reasons. Rockwood offended him, in his role as snarling wingnut, by attempting to get to the bottom of threats and abuse that were hurled at school-board members and staff last fall.

Rockwood posted an FBI hotline number on its website to facilitate the reporting of such harassment. This was during the period in which mobs of anti-vaxxers, QAnon zombies, MAGA zealots, “patriots” and other lovable lunatics were wreaking havoc at school-board meetings and more.

Or as Schmitt calls it, “the good old days.”

Rockwood was doing the right thing by trying to protect its people. But it was protecting them from the frothing Trump base that holds the key to Schmitt’s political ambitions. So, he demanded public emails to get to the bottom of this dangerous attempt to make people safe.

On the bright side, it was nice to see Schmitt take a respite from his hobby of using taxpayer-funded resources to pursue political errands via amicus briefs for other people’s lawsuits. Torturing Rockwood officials was at least an in-state activity.

But as bad as Schmitt’s intentions were, Rockwood is a public school district that must follow the Missouri Sunshine Law. Schmitt’s lawsuit alleges that Rockwood “demanded up-front payment of fees” and asked for a deposit “to ‘prepare copies’ of requested records even though all records requested were electronic in nature and do not require copying,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

If that turns out to be true, Schmitt will have landed on the right side of an issue for once. It’s unacceptable for public entities to avoid accountability by requiring unreasonable fees.

But there is one other element to this story that is far more interesting than all that. It turns out that Schmitt’s hypocrisy on this subject is so egregious as to qualify as historic.

Were there a Hypocrisy Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, it would waive any retirement requirements to induct him while he’s still playing.

Space does not permit an adequate recounting of the instances in which Schmitt has violated — and continues to violate — both the letter and the spirit of Missouri’s Sunshine Law when it comes to the work of the attorney general’s office. He is a large, sneering poster boy for the need to strengthen the state’s open-records rules.

In November 2018, Governor Mike Parson appointed Schmitt to replace insurrectionist Senator Josh Hawley when the latter sauntered off to Washington. One of Schmitt’s first orders of business was to follow in Hawley’s footsteps by thrusting himself into the case known as Gross v. Parson.

That would be St. Louis attorney Elad Gross, who personally has served as something of a legal defense fund for the First Amendment in recent years. Gross sued Parson over a number of Sunshine Law violations, one of which was charging illegal and excessive fees for public records.

Sound familiar?

Schmitt’s only success in that case was overcoming Gross’ objection to his participation. Gross argued that Schmitt was supposed to defend the Sunshine Law itself, not the public officials who were accused of violating it (not even a public official who, say, appointed him to his job).

No matter. Schmitt came aboard and “dragged out litigation for years and opposed transparency at every stage,” Gross told me. Now, there’s a shocker.

Schmitt did what Schmitt does, which is to lose the case. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against Parson and his faithful attorney general on several counts, presented here courtesy of Gross:
1) The governor charged illegal and excessive fees for access to public records, illegally trying to pass on charges for attorneys to review documents to members of the public.
2) The governor illegally delayed production of public records.
3) The governor failed to provide a detailed explanation for why production of records needed to be delayed.
4) The governor redacted records without explanation.
5) The governor failed to fulfill the requirements under the Sunshine Law to separate open from closed records so they would be readily accessible to the public.
6) The plaintiff properly alleged that the governor knowingly and purposely violated Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

That’s all well and good, but Eric Schmitt was not about to be intimidated by some radical-socialist fake judging. He’s gone on to do what any Trump supporter would: He just says no to Sunshine Laws.

Presently, nemesis Gross has two public-records lawsuits pending against Schmitt and his office. In both cases, Schmitt’s behavior appears far more troubling than what he has accused Rockwood officials of having done.

The suits involve Schmitt’s efforts to avoid public scrutiny and accountability for an especially curious matter: an effort to recruit attendees for Donald Trump’s January 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington. Perhaps the date rings a bell.

Schmitt was an officer in the Republican Attorneys General Association, and Gross believes some in Schmitt’s office were improperly involved in a blatantly political exercise. Gross has sued the office claiming that records relating to that possible activity have been illegally withheld.

It is unknown to what extent Schmitt and his staff in the attorney general’s office participated in support of this nefarious effort. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it’s a huge scandal. Maybe somewhere in between.

But the more important point is that no one on the outside knows. That’s precisely why Missouri has a Sunshine Law in the first place — one that happened to be enacted as a signature of Republican Governor Kit Bond in 1973.

Admittedly that seems like it was enacted in some other millennium given today’s political climate. It’s hard to imagine the likes of Schmitt, Parson and Hawley embracing any effort today to bring more transparency to government.

A solution wouldn’t be all that complicated in the digital age. “There’s an easy fix to many of the problems with the Sunshine Law,” Gross says. “Require the government to publish open records online in a searchable database automatically even without a request.” That sounds like a fine Missouri ballot referendum to me. It sure beats waiting until Eric Schmitt and his pals get around to fixing this.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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