Some Missourians can expect a refund from Gov. Mike Parson for fees they paid to obtain public records from his office, a result of a recent state Supreme Court ruling that deemed the costs illegal.
Transparency advocates said they hoped it was just the beginning.
In its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled in June that Parson’s office improperly redacted records, charged exorbitant fees and knowingly and purposely violated the state’s open records law.
The court determined the state’s Sunshine Law does not allow government agencies to charge the public for attorneys to review records before turning them over.
In order to abide by the ruling, the governor’s office has decided it will refund attorneys’ fees paid by anyone whose open records request was pending when the court’s decision was handed down.
That includes The Independent, which was contacted Monday about receiving a partial refund for a June 17 request for which the governor’s office originally charged $113 for “research.”
The governor’s custodian of records said the office was issuing five refunds in response to the Supreme Court’s decision.
Elad Gross, whose lawsuit against Parson led to the June Supreme Court decision, called the partial refunds “really great news.”
“I’m happy the governor is finally following the Sunshine Law,” Gross said.
But he said five refunds wasn’t nearly enough.
The Supreme Court determined that government agencies — not just the governor — have been violating the Sunshine Law by charging attorneys’ fees for records requests, Gross said. That means Missourians should be able to reclaim any money they’ve been charged illegally, he said, regardless of when it was collected.
“They certainly know who has submitted Sunshine requests,” Gross said of government agencies. “They know who has paid them. The right thing to do would be to reimburse all those folks.”
Mark Pedroli, an attorney and founder of the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project, agreed.
“The governor’s office and every other government entity in Missouri owes a refund to everyone for the attorneys’ fees that have been charged and paid pursuant to Sunshine requests,” he said. “And refusing to refund would be a knowing and purposeful violation of the law.”
Kelli Jones, the governor’s spokeswoman, did not respond to a request for comment about whether any other refunds are in the works.
Attorneys’ fees are often the largest part of the cost of obtaining public records in Missouri, ballooning the expense of accessing government documents.
The invoice that led to Gross’ lawsuit estimated that it would take the governor’s office 90.46 hours of “research/processing” time at a rate of $40-per-hour to fulfill a request for records relating to campaign contributions.
That ended up totaling $3,600, with the governor’s office saying it would take 120 business days for public records to be turned over — or roughly four months.
“I’d recommend,” Gross said, “anyone who has ever been charged for attorney review time as part of a records request to take a look at the bills they got and ask for that money back.”
This article by Jason Hancock is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.