Attorney General Josh Hawley wants to put some teeth in Missouri’s Sunshine Law.
He made his case for tougher provisions of Missouri’s open records and meeting law at a press conference on Monday. The intent of the Sunshine Law is to keep Missouri government open and transparent.
Those of us in the press welcome the support from our state’s top lawyer. It’s about time.
Hawley, a Republican, is asking lawmakers to create a transparency division in the attorney general’s office; to grant the attorney general’s office subpoena power in open records investigations; and to create penalties for violating the state’s record-retention laws, according to news reports.
All three of these proposals have merit. Some have been included in previous legislative attempts to strengthen the Sunshine Law but as of now, no bills carrying these specific measures have been filed this session.
Hawley’s proposals are just conversation starters. It will take leadership from the General Assembly and support from the governor’s office to make these changes a reality. Hawley can’t make the changes himself.
That is the tricky part. That is where prior attempts to strengthen the law have died.
There is widespread support among legislators and the general public to ensure government is open and transparent. There is less appetite, especially among some government officials, to stiffen penalties for violations of the law.
Hawley would like to make record-retention violations subject to fines of up to $2,000 and a term of up to one year in prison or both. Lawmakers have balked at penalties like these in the past, arguing they are too draconian.
Likewise, Hawley wants his office to have subpoena power over government agencies and public officials to get information for inquiries on possible records violations instead of having to rely on their cooperation. We expect resistance from lawmakers on this front as well.
That has been the history of our state’s Sunshine Law. The law needs to be updated and strengthened through mechanical changes and by including tougher penalties.
But when it comes time to actually implement changes, the support evaporates.
Which brings us to Hawley, who also happens to be running for U.S. Senate. Critics say Hawley is championing changes to the Sunshine Law merely as a campaign tactic.
They point to his less than robust investigation of Gov. Greitens’ administration’s use of a controversial telephone app that deletes messages after they’re read and prevents recipients from saving, forwarding, printing or taking screenshots of messages, as evidence that he’s not really serious about the Sunshine Law.
If Hawley was aggressive, he would have sought an injunction from the courts to halt the practice as private lawyers have sought to do in a separate lawsuit.
We don’t care about his motives. This is a conversation worth having. If Hawley can use his office to muster support for these changes, then we support his efforts.