A Boone County judge has sided with an animal rights organization in its lawsuit claiming the University of Missouri charged an excessive price for records about animals used in research.
The Beagle Freedom Project sued MU in May 2016 after the university gave an estimate of $82,222 to fulfill a request for records about animals used in research. The request was part of a larger Beagle Freedom Project campaign that included requests to at least a dozen universities, most of which provided the records at little or no cost, according to Judge Jeff Harris' ruling issued Friday.
Harris wrote in the 26-page ruling that MU used the pay rate of highly compensated employees in calculating research costs to fulfill the request when lower-paid employees could have accomplished the research.
Harris said the university's custodian of records did not fulfill "an obligation on the part of government to make a diligent effort to accurately calculate costs."
"When hours and costs are not adequately questioned, the result can effectively stymie a taxpayer from getting government records," Harris wrote.
Harris said the use of veterinarians and PhD holders making more than $100,000 per year to retrieve the records was inappropriate, citing an MU employee's testimony that a person with a "rudimentary knowledge" of computers could retrieve some of the records. The amount of research time MU used to calculate the cost estimate was also unreasonable, Harris wrote.
"After hearing the evidence, the Court finds that there is nothing so complex, unique or burdensome about the information sought that would require a requestor to pay in excess of $450 just to get the records for a single dog or cat," Harris wrote.
Harris ruled that MU "knowingly violated" the state's Sunshine Law and ordered the university to pay a $1,000 penalty and the Beagle Freedom Foundation's attorneys' fees and court costs.
The university said in a statement that it disagrees with Harris' ruling.
"We respond to nearly 700 Sunshine requests per year and devote significant resources to live up to the requirements of the Sunshine Law," MU said in the statement sent to ABC 17 News.
MU said it is reviewing the decision in detail and weighing its options.