St. Louis taxpayers to pay thousands after circuit attorney loses open records suit

(The Center Square) – St. Louis taxpayers might pay approximately $80,000 in attorneys fees after Circuit Court Judge Jason Sengheiser ruled against Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner in a years-long open records dispute related to the failed attempted prosecution of former Missouri Republican Gov. Eric Greitens.

Dave Roland, director of Litigation at the Freedom Center of Missouri and the attorney for journalist and plaintiff John Solomon, editor in chief of Just the News, said the amount is conservative and doesn’t include a 9% post-judgment annual interest rate from a July 2020 judgment.

“That’s part of the reason why I think these government officials are emboldened to make these terrible anti-transparency decisions,” Roland said in an interview with The Center Square. “They also pursue appeals like this one – which I don’t think ever had any legitimate chance of succeeding – because it’s not on their own dime. It’s on the taxpayers’ dime. They’re playing with other people’s money. And so why would they make sound financial decisions if it’s not coming out of their pocket?”

Solomon requested all of Gardner’s communications with a wide range of people, including billionaire George Soros, from the days before she filed criminal charges against Greitens, the former governor of Missouri who’s a candidate for the Republican nomination for the seat of retiring U.S. Senator Roy Blunt. Gardner didn’t respond to Solomon’s request.

After a St. Louis Circuit Court ruled in Solomon’s favor in July 2020, Gardner appealed and lost at the Missouri Court of Appeals. After the Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear Gardner’s appeal, the appellate court sent the case back to trial court and ordered Gardner to turn over the documents and pay Solomon a $5,000 civil penalty plus court costs and attorney fees.

Gardner turned over documents for a judicial review but argued all were attorney work products or subject to attorney-client privilege. Sengheiser reviewed the documents and wrote in Thursday’s three-page order, “the Court finds that none of them were subject to any privilege, nor did they constitute work product at this point.”

“We just assumed at least some of them might be qualified for these privileges,” said Roland, who estimated 20% of the records might be protected. “When the judge said he looked at all the records and there was no basis for any of them, that was just tremendous. I mean it was fantastic. We couldn’t be more pleased with this outcome.”

Earlier this year, Gardner was accused of prosecutorial misconduct and admitted she mistakenly withheld evidence during the 2018 criminal case against Greitens. The Missouri Supreme Court is reviewing a settlement recommending a reprimand – not a suspension, probation or disbarment – for Gardner.

Sengheiser ordered Gardner’s office to pay $27,72.46 on Thursday, the amount of legal fees from the 2020 judgment, but Gardner objected to paying the interest. Roland conservatively estimated the legal fees from the last two years of litigation might be as high as $50,000.

Sengheiser noted Roland and Solomon’s contention that Gardner “neither searched for nor produced all records responsive to the Plaintiff’s Sunshine Law request, which included ‘contacts transmitted on any official phones, smart phones, electronic devices, and computers as well as any private communications devices that were used for official business.'”

“We actually think there are more records they are hiding,” Roland said. “We have asked the court to conduct some discovery. We have to see if the judge will allow us to do that.”

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