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Cole County to pay over $35K for Sunshine Law violations

The Court of Appeals for the Western District of Missouri ruled Tuesday that the Cole County government must pay at least $36,000 for Sunshine Law violations made by the former prosecuting attorney’s office.

To read the opinion, click here.

The violations stem from records request made in 2015 by St. Louis County resident Aaron Malin, who sought documents related to a drug task force. Mark Richardson — the county’s prosecuting attorney at the time — denied the request and argued in court that his office was exempt from the Sunshine Law, according to one of Malin’s attorneys, David Roland.

The law lays out which meetings and records in Missouri should be open to the public.

“Mark Richardson did knowingly and purposefully violate the Sunshine Law by refusing, even to look, for open public records,” Roland said. “As a consequence, the prosecuting attorney’s office is now on the hook for roughly $36,000.”

Richardson was the Cole County prosecuting attorney for more than a decade. He was upset by fellow Republican Locke Thompson in August’s primary election.

Richardson did not respond to a request for comment.

Thompson, who became the prosecuting attorney on Dec. 31, said he has no plans to file an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court.

“During the (primary) campaign I kind of called Mark (Richardson) out for this case,” Locke told ABC 17 News. “I felt that it was a violation of the Sunshine Law… You inherit some things you don’t always want to.”

Thompson said he is working with the Cole County Commission to figure out where the county will pull money from to pay the penalty. He said his office fully intends to follow through on every records request.

“Sunshine Law requests are often very tedious, very time consuming, but that does not mean we get to ignore them,” Thompson said.

The penalty for Richardson’s seven Sunshine law violations was $12,100, which Roland said he believes is the largest penalty for violating government transparency laws in state history. Richardson was also ordered to pay $24,070 in attorneys’ fees.

“The appellate court confirmed no one is exempt from transparency,” Roland said.

After being ordered to pay the $12,100 by a Cole Circuit Court judge in October 2017, Richardson appealed to the Western District the following month.

In his appeal, Richardson did not challenge the circuit court’s ruling that he “knowingly and purposefully violated the Sunshine Law,” according to Tuesday’s opinion.

Instead, Richardson argued that his office was not required to turn over the documents requested, which related to the MUSTANG drug task force, and challenged the dollar amount of the civil penalty. Tuesday’s ruling said that Richardson was responsible for searching for and identifying all records relevant to Malin’s request, and was required to provide an explanation why closed records were not available pursuant to state law.

Richardson also argued that despite violating the Sunshine law several times, the fees could not stack above the $5,000 maximum. In its ruling, the appellate court found that “this argument was not presented to the circuit court, and thus it is not preserved for our review on appeal.”

In a footnote, appellate judges Alok Ahuja, Thomas H. Newton and Mark D. Pfeiffer added that if they were to review this argument, they would have knocked it down because of the “multiple, distinct violations of the Sunshine Law.”

“Thus, even had the Prosecutor adequately preserved the issue for our review, it would fail on the merits,” the ruling said.

In his final months in office, Richardson was criticized by other county leaders for using funds intended to fund his office to buy multiple drones.

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