JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri - Senator Claire McCaskill is pressing the Missouri National Guard to quit hiding behind open records laws and give more details about looting that occurred in Joplin after a massive tornado last year.
Members of the Missouri National Guard have been disciplined for the looting, but the Guard refuses to release information about the incidents, citing an exemption from Missouri’s open records law.
McCaskill says that’s wrong.
“I don’t think anybody should be protected from the Sunshine Law,” she said.
The Guard has not responded to several media outlets’ open records request for details this month. The Guard said it is not subject to the open records law, which was created to make state government accountable.
“So I think the records of the National Guard in this instance needs to be opened up,” McCaskill said. “And I hope that, it ought to be something that Jeff City takes a look at.”
Brig. Gen. Randy Alewel, commander of the 35th Engineer Brigade, acknowledged in a telephone interview that members of his unit were involved in the looting after the May 22, 2011, EF-5 tornado wiped out a large portion of Joplin, killing 161 people. Alewel would not say how many soldiers were involved or how they were disciplined, and he refused to detail the extent of the looting.
”We conducted an investigation and disciplinary action was imposed on those soldiers,” Alewel said.
Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization that works for transparency in state and local government, said Missouri is the only state in the U.S. that completely exempts its National Guard from state open-records law.
Major Tammy Spicer, spokeswoman for the Missouri National Guard, said Wednesday that while the Guard is exempt from Missouri Sunshine law, it is still subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act.
”The Missouri National Guard provides the maximum amount of information allowed under the laws that we follow,” Spicer said.
Missouri’s Sunshine Law, or open records law, details when a public governmental body can close a meeting, record or vote. The law includes 22 exemptions where closed meetings and closed records are allowed, but not required. Such instances include discussion of legal strategy in litigation, real estate transactions where public knowledge might affect the price, and some welfare cases.
Jean Maneke, a board member of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition and legal consultant for the Missouri Press Association, said she knows of no other Missouri government entity that is completely exempt.
”It’s very unusual and it’s of concern any time you have an entity that chooses not to make itself open to public inspection,” Maneke said “That leaves you open to the possibility of some kind of malfeasance that the public doesn’t know about.”
In such cases, Maneke said, monitoring falls to the state auditor and attorney general, two entities that she said already “have their hands full.”
The Missouri National Guard has more than 11,500 soldiers and airmen. Most of its $660 million annual budget comes from the federal government. The guard also has 440 full-time state employees and receives about $37 million from Missouri.
Maj. Gen. Stephen L. Danner, adjutant general of the Missouri National Guard, did not return calls seeking comment. A spokesman for Gov. Jay Nixon also declined comment Wednesday.
Officials with the National Guard in several other states said they respond routinely to open records requests, including in Illinois, where state law closely resembles federal rules.
”It’s not policy, it’s law and we are bound by it,” said Tom Banning, attorney adviser for the Illinois Department of Military Affairs, which handles requests.
Former Sen. John Scott, D-St. Louis, requested the guard exemption in 1987, and said he believes now that was a mistake.
”To be honest about it, I’d have a hard time supporting any government entity paid for by tax dollars being exempted from the open-meetings law,” Scott said. “I think everybody should be governed by it.”