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Cole County to pay $50,000+ for former prosecutor's Sunshine Law violation

Cole County to pay $50,000+ for former prosecutor's Sunshine Law violation

March 14th, 2019 by Jeff Haldiman in Local News

This Oct. 29, 2014 file photo shows Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson in court.

The Cole County Commission approved a plan Wednesday to pay penalties and attorneys' fees following a January ruling by the Missouri court of appeals in Kansas City, which upheld Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce's October 2017 finding that then-Cole County Prosecutor Mark Richardson "knowingly and purposefully violated the Sunshine Law."

Joyce ordered Richardson to pay $12,100 to Aaron Malin, the plaintiff in the 2015 lawsuit.

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And, in an amended order in March 2018, Joyce ordered Richardson to pay an additional $24,070 to cover Malin's attorney fees.

Due to Richardson appealing the case — and losing — there were additional attorneys' fees of $11,232.50.

With interest applied to the lawyers' fees, the total cost to the county is $51,166.55.

The money will be taken from contingency money in the county's general fund.

Locke Thompson succeeded Richardson as county prosecutor Jan. 1 and told the News Tribune he didn't plan any further appeal of the case, adding he believes Richardson had violated the Sunshine Law in this matter prior to the appeals court ruling.

Malin's case began as he was studying connections between law enforcement officials and drug cases.

On three separate occasions from April through October 2015, the appeals court ruling notes, Malin asked Richardson for correspondence between Richardson and the Mustang Drug Task Force; copies of charges Richardson filed relating to narcotic sales in public housing, beginning in July 2014; and Sunshine Law requests made to Richardson, as well as his responses, from January 2015 to the present.

"On each occasion, (Richardson) responded with general objections to the records requests, sometimes untimely, and indicated that the request was too burdensome and the task of searching for any responsive documents simply would not be performed," Judge Mark Pfeiffer noted for the appeals court panel.

After Malin received those responses, he hired attorney Dave Roland of the Freedom Center of Missouri in Mexico, Missouri, and Roland sent Richardson a letter detailing the prosecutor's "untimely and statutorily deficient form of" his answers.

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Pfeiffer noted: "(Richardson) ignored the letters from Malin's attorney, (who) then filed the instant Sunshine Law suit, and only then, after many months of protracted litigation, did the Prosecutor provide partial responses to some of the requests."

However, Joyce found — and the appeals court agreed — those were not the answers Missouri's Open Records/ Open Meetings Law required.

"It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, but the county is on the hook for it, so we'll have to pay it," Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman said Wednesday.

County Attorney Jill LaHue said Thompson had told her his office was able to handle two of Malin's three requests in about an hour. The third is more time-consuming, but they are fulfilling the request, she said.

"(Richardson) was an idiot for not doing what the law required him to do," Western District Commissioner Kris Scheperle said. "There should be a state law that penalizes the individual officeholder and not the county when an officeholder is found to have violated the law. I see this as when someone is found stealing funds from the county."