The Attorney General's Stone Wall
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
Attorney General Eric Schmitt is stonewalling on a Sunshine request. I'm asking for advice on what to do next.
Here's the story:
I've run into a stone wall in my request for information on Eric Schmitt's travel expenses. I initially asked about his expenses after learning that he took a trip to Texas on Thursday, October 21, where he announced a lawsuit to restart construction of the US-Mexico border wall. On that next day, Friday, I called the Attorney General's office and asked whether Missouri taxpayers had paid for this trip. It was clear in my mind that this trip was related to campaign activities and not related to any official capacity as the Attorney General. I managed to speak to a staff person at the AG's office who explained that it was an official trip. For what it was worth, I disagreed with him, because Schmitt - in my opinion - used the occasion to hype his credentials in preparation for a presumed run for U.S. Senator. I told the staffer that I would like to see Schmitt's expense report for this trip, and he informed me that I needed to go online and fill out a "Sunshine Request" form to make my request official. I thanked him for the information, and we parted ways.
Over that following weekend, I filled out the Sunshine Request form with the AG's office. It turns out that this is a fairly easy thing to do. I requested a copy of the AG's official expense reports and related trip reports for all of 2021, up to, and including the present moment. Why all of 2021? I was concerned that this wasn't the first such transgression, so I decided to investigate all his trips.
On the following Sunday, the St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a story with the headline, "New story from Missouri AG's office: Schmitt's campaign paid for the border trip, taxpayers paid to send a spokesman." In this article, a spokesperson corrected an earlier statement he'd made on the prior Friday. In that earlier statement, he said that taxpayers paid for Schmitt's trip. But on Monday, the spokesperson said he was mistaken; that indeed Schmitt's campaign paid for the trip.
Apparently I wasn't the only one who questioned Schmitt's trip. At some point, Schmitt must have figured that the jig was up, so he cut a check from his campaign funds to reimburse the taxpayers. But this was only a suspicion on my part. I needed confirmation, so I continued to look forward to getting the report from my Sunshine request.
His expense reports alone wouldn't answer all the questions I had. And I did have further questions, such as; did Schmitt take a vacation day for the trip, or did he bill his time on the taxpayer's nickel? Was the check from his campaign fund cut after the jig was up, or was this a pre-planned event that was charged directly to the campaign's credit card?
To be fair to Eric Schmitt as well as to the taxpayers, these questions needed to be answered. Getting the travel expense reports was only the first step; my plan was to dig further and look at his vacation hours and his campaign expense ledger. All of this information should be available to the public. Well, at least in my somewhat naive mind, it should be public.
I was initially encouraged by an email with an attached PDF file I received from the AG's office on October 28. I've included a copy of the PDF below.
The first thing that struck me in this document was that they spelled my name wrong at the top of the letter, but then spelled it correctly the second time. Hello? Anyway, the letter went on to describe in painful detail the process that the AG's office had to go through in order to satisfy my request. Frankly, it was a lot more information than I needed to know, but it served a purpose for the AG's office; it basically bought time for the AG's office to respond.
Another thing struck me at that point was this sentence, "The earliest we expect responsive records, if any, to be availalable is on or about November 18, 2021" The "if any" clause drew my concern. They seemed to lay the groundwork for weaseling out of providing anything because, after all, it may not be available.
Okay, it's true I was born at night, but I wasn't born last night. I've been walking this planet for 62 years now, and I've managed to learn a few things on my path. I've learned that expense reports are tracked very accurately. Every company I've ever worked for tracked their expenses with diligent enthusiasm. Over the past decade, expense reports have gone 100% digital. I'm not an accountant, but I've gotten to know a lot of accountants over the years, and I know that any one of them can produce a filed expense report in a few minutes. These days, I can produce my own expense reports because, as I said, everything is digital. So the long-winded explanation of the processes that the AG's office had to traverse, along with the clause, "if any" sounded like they were setting the stage for disappointment.
The due date, November 18, came and went.
But I held faith that the process would bear fruit, so I practiced patience. I have to admit that during this time, I trolled the AG a few times on Twitter by asking him to produce the Sunshine report I requested. I mean, after all, he was requesting school boards answer his Sunshine requests, it only seemed fair that he answer his own requests with equal diligence.
This morning I checked my email, and indeed, my patience paid off. Or so it seemed. I received an email from the AG's office. When I initially looked at it, I saw that the PDF attachment was only about 112k in size. I'm a computer geek, and the small size of the file could only say one thing; there's no way you're going to cram ten months of expense reports into a file that small, even after compression.
Unfortunately, my suspicion was well-founded. The letter I received was a simple, yet logical, conclusion to the foreshadowing in the first letter. The "if any" clause was code for, "we're not going to give you any." See the response below:
True to form, they misspelled my name at the top of the letter, but spelled it correctly the second time around.
Here's the thing; I'm not a lawyer. I'm an engineer. Interestingly, I actually acted as a lawyer in court on two occasions and won both times. I guess you can say that I'm batting 1000 insofar as being a lawyer is concerned. But alas, I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know exactly what to do at this point. Should I file a lawsuit against our AG? I don't know. But I do know that I shouldn't have to tolerate this type of treatment from our AG, and I'm willing to put on my lawyer hat again to fight for the expense reports. Yet in saying so, I feel a sense of trepidation. I may be stepping in over my head.
So I'm asking folks to give me advice on what to do next. I'd like to fight this thing, but I have no idea what I'm up against. But I'll do it, because it's the right thing to do. As long as we have a democracy - and we may not have it much longer - we need to hold our elected officials to account. This is a fight worth having.
I just don't want to march into battle with a sword made of soft butter.
Please feel free to leave me comments in email at dan-at-democracyonthemove.org or comment on this site's web page or DM me on Twitter @allonthemove.
UPDATE - December 20, 2021
I understand that Elad Gross is pursuing at least one other Sunshine request with the Attorney General's office, and he is aware of my own struggles. I asked him for advice in this matter, but I have not yet heard back.
So I'm taking another approach; I wrote the AG's office and asked for clarification on their most recent letter to me. Specifically, I asked the following single question:
Am I to understand that there are no such records?
Okay, I admit it; I'm backing them into a corner. If they say "Yes, there are records," then I would ask why they won't provide them as part of my Sunshine request. If they answer "No, there are no such records," then they are guilty of sloppy accounting and should be reported to the state auditor.
I actually don't expect I'll see a response from this letter. They may sense that I'm backing them into a corner and picking a fight. I'll give them a few weeks, and if I do not receive a response, I'll contact the state auditor's office and see if they feel like getting involved.
in any case, I believe this is an important issue to pursue. I highly suspect the Attorney General is campaigning for U.S. Senator on the Missouri taxpayer's dime.
Stay tuned for more!