Though he officially vacated the office of governor Friday, Eric Greitens’ legal troubles are far from over.
Two St. Louis County attorneys are pushing forward on what they say is the now former governor’s violation of the state’s open records laws.
Mark Pedroli and Ben Sansone are neighbors in the city of Des Peres who first teamed up to fight a development proposal in their neighborhood back in 2016. When Sansone and Pedroli requested a trial transcript from the city relating to the litigation through the Sunshine law, the city did not turn it over, resulting in the pair suing.
Pedroli, who practices law out of his Clayton office, said they did ultimately get the trial transcript but not until a year after they filed the lawsuit. Remarkably, that the case is still pending.
While the actions taking place in Des Peres aren’t quite over, it has since inspired the two to start an organization called The Sunshine Project, a pro bono legal collaboration between the separate law firms of Pedroli and Sansone in order to help people submit Sunshine and FOIA requests and, in some circumstances, file lawsuits if the government refuses to produce the records.
“We got our feet wet sort of in public advocacy issues about two years ago and were sort of in the middle of that litigation when we started the Sunshine Project, which entertained taking on these types of cases for people that couldn’t get records from the government,” Pedroli said. “This was shocking to us, frankly, because we were lawyers, and at the time you wouldn’t think a municipality is going to want to litigate with someone for two years over a public trial transcript.
“You start to learn about the motivations of people in government trying to conceal information and why they do it.”
In the midst of starting up their new venture, Pedroli said he and Sansone learned of the Kansas City Star’s report in December that Greitens’ and his senior staff were using an app that deletes text messages after they’ve been read called Confide.
On December 29, 2017, Pedroli sued the governor and his staff, challenging their use of Confide to hide communications that Pedroli and Sansone say should be made public, according to the state’s Sunshine law.
Attorney General Josh Hawley also opened an official investigation into whether the governor and his staff violated the law through the app.
Hawley’s investigation revealed eight people using the app, with only five using it for government business, but it also found no evidence of any wrongdoing.
Hawley was heavily criticized for the investigation but argued that the lack of subpoena power had limited what the investigation could truly accomplish.
Pedroli was persistent, however, asking the former governor and certain staff to answer questions they issued in February and March that were relevant to the case. Since then, Pedroli said the governor has objected and refused to answer the more than 90 questions proposed to him.
That ended Friday when a court order by Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem said the Greitens’ defense had until 1 p.m. to submit the names, phone numbers, and Confide account names of everyone, including the governor himself, who had downloaded and/or used Confide, stemming from a lawsuit filed back in December that alleged the Governor’s Office had used the app to get around the state’s open records laws.
Greitens’ office revealed that 19 employees, past and present, downloaded and/or used the message-destroying app on their phones, including Greitens, his press secretary, and legal counsel.
Fifteen current staffers, as well as four former staffers and Greitens himself, had Confide accounts during his 17 months in office. That number is much higher than the number that had been used in the investigation done by Hawley.
“I was very surprised. I always assumed the governor’s office withheld some people from the attorney general’s offie during the AGO inquiry, but I never thought it would be 20 people total,” Pedroli said. “That number did surprise me.”
Pedroli said that the next step will be a hearing Wednesday morning where Beetem may entertain a motion to compel or order the former governor and certain staff to answer questions they issued in February and March that were relevant to the case.
“We’re asking the judge to start ordering them to answer some of the most relevant questions in the case about the use of Confide, who Confide was used with to communicate and that sort of thing,” Pedroli said.
Pedroli said Sunshine cases like the ones he’s dealing with today are equally as important as they were 100 years ago but because of the way technology is used today in governmental communications, it has become more interesting.
“It’s created more questions about how to maintain government communications,” Pedroli said. “In the case of the governor for example, communications that he has about public business are to be kept permanently in the archives. That’s another driving force of this.”
Pedroli said both he and Sansone plan to take on more Sunshine law cases in the future once their caseloads start to lighten. But for now, the pair are set on finishing the legal battle against Greitens.
“We felt like we thought it was the right thing to do and we did it, and we’re still doing it and we don’t know where it’s going to end,” Pedroli said.