Our Opinion: Guard shields looters; breaches public trust

The Sunshine Law, the Missouri National Guard reminded this week, does not apply to them.

That’s a haughty public response to questions concerning Guard members who were involved in looting from victims of tornado damage in Joplin.

“We (the Guard) conducted an investigation and disciplinary action was imposed on those soldiers,” said Brig. Gen. Randy Alewel, commander of the 35th Engineer Brigade. Soldiers from his unit reportedly were involved in looting after the deadly tornado that killed 161 people and destroyed a third of the Joplin community on May 22, 2011.

We traditionally are strong supporters of the National Guard, but we do not support hiding behind a Sunshine Law exemption.

First, the exemption is wrong. Even former Sen. John Scott — the St. Louis Democrat who requested the exemption in 1987 — now concedes it was a mistake. “To be honest about it,” he said, “I’d have a hard time supporting any government entity paid for by tax dollars being exempted from the open meetings law.”

And Sunshine Review, which monitors openness in state and local government, found Missouri’s exemption of its National Guard unique.

Even if the exemption did not exist, however, the Sunshine Law specifies what state agencies must make public and it outlines circumstances where meetings and records may be closed to public view.

The operative word is “may.”

By choosing to remain shrouded by a cloak of secrecy, the Guard raises a number of questions. They include:

• Does the Guard feel comfortable withholding information concerning a breach of public trust? Victims of natural disasters count on Guard personnel to protect their possessions, not pilfer them.

• Was information about the looting forwarded to prosecutors in a timely fashion to determine if criminal charges should be filed?

• Will Gov. Jay Nixon, who oversees the executive agency, overturn the Guard’s decision? Although the letter of the law may permit silence, the spirit of openness urges disclosure.

The looting marks an embarrassing episode for Missouri’s National Guard. Secrecy only makes it worse.

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