House investigative committee begins work today

Rep. Jay Barnes, chairman of the Special Investigative Committee on Oversight, addresses members of the committee and press Tuesday, March 6, 2018.
Rep. Jay Barnes, chairman of the Special Investigative Committee on Oversight, addresses members of the committee and press Tuesday, March 6, 2018.

The Missouri House Special Investigative Committee on Oversight will meet at 8 a.m. today at the Jefferson City Police Department, 401 Monroe St. - but the meeting is closed to the public and press.

The seven-member panel voted unanimously to close this morning's meeting, during a five-minute hearing Tuesday evening.

And the rules the House approved last week by a 154-0 vote allow Chairman Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, to "close all or a portion of such hearings to hear the testimony of certain witnesses or review evidence."

Barnes told reporters and a few spectators gathered in a Capitol basement hearing room: "As everyone here has heard us say before, this committee exists solely as a fact-finding entity, and this is something that we take seriously.

"And as a committee that wants to go through a fact-finding process, having that completely open would destroy the very purpose of the committee."

He also said the seven-member committee has "a responsibility to protect the identity and the privacy of witnesses, and we will do our best to make sure that that happens."

Noting the 10 cameras in the room, Barnes wondered if the media would listen, but told reporters: "I ask for everyone here to respect (the) witnesses who are appearing in front of this committee, to respect their privacy and to respect our attempt to get at the underlying facts the best that (we) can."

House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, formed the committee last week, to investigate felony allegations against Gov. Eric Greitens and report back to the House.

A St. Louis grand jury last month charged the governor with felony invasion of privacy for taking a picture in March 2015 of a woman - who was at least partially nude - in such a way that the picture could be seen on a computer.

The grand jury said that action violated a 1995 state law that prohibits taking someone's picture without their permission when they are at least partially undressed and in an area where they have an expectation of privacy.

The law was written in response to a tanning salon owner who set up cameras in the tanning bed area.

Greitens' attorneys have argued it shouldn't apply to his situation, where the woman - who has been identified as his hairdresser and his lover and who was not his wife - was in his basement and engaging in sexual activity voluntarily.

But other lawyers have said the law, while launched by a tanning bed business' peeping tom, wasn't written to apply only to that situation.

The governor has acknowledged having the affair, before he had launched his campaign for governor, but he has denied taking any picture or of taking any criminal action.

In a court appearance last week, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner's staff said it does not have the photograph, but is working to get it.

The House committee is to report its findings to the House early next month.

There was no discussion among the panel's members Tuesday; Barnes was the only one who spoke other than during the committee's roll call and voting.

He said the committee will offer a public report and records of our proceedings when its work is finished, but until then, "you are not going to get any comments from me or members of this committee - or hints from members of this committee. You are wasting your time trying.

"And it wouldn't be fair to anyone involved in this process."

After the vote to close this morning's hearing at the Jefferson City Police Station, none of the committee members spoke with the media.

The resolution passed last week authorizes the panel to have Richardson issue subpoenas on the committee's behalf.

But House Communications Director Trevor Fox said Tuesday he didn't know if any subpoenas had been issued for today's hearing or for future hearings - nor did he know if any subpoenas the committee issues eventually would be made public.

In addition to several print and radio reporters, Mid-Missouri's three commercial television stations were joined by stations from St. Louis and Kansas City.

Noting the number of cameras, Barnes said: "At a point in time in the future (when) we are having public hearings, we will have one camera feed because we are not going to have hearings with the room filled with everyone's competing cameras."

Barnes made no comment on a letter each committee member received Monday from the national Radio, Television and Digital News Association (RTDNA), which urged the panel "to close hearings, and use your redaction discretion, only under the most limited circumstances possible in the interest of the public's need to know, and journalists' role as the public's surrogates in allowing them to know."

The letter, written by RTDNA Executive Director Dan Shelley - a former reporter and anchor for KTTS Radio in Springfield - also protested "the so-called 'gag order' the resolution imposes on you until your investigation is completed."

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