In his ongoing effort to get information about "dark money" and its effects on state government operations, St. Louis attorney Elad Gross this week sued Gov. Mike Parson for failure to respond properly to Sunshine Law requests.
The case, filed in the Cole County Circuit Court, was assigned to Presiding Judge Pat Joyce.
"Dark money" is the term Gross and others use to describe donations made to organizations that don't have to identify their donors.
Then, if those organizations contribute to political campaigns — the argument goes — voters don't have any way of knowing whose contributions might be influencing politicians' decisions on the campaign trail or after they've been elected to an office.
Gross, a former assistant attorney general now practicing law in St. Louis, already has an active lawsuit in front of Circuit Judge Jon Beetem, where he's seeking information from A New Missouri, the not-for-profit group created last year to support then-Gov. Eric Greitens and his initiatives.
Gross' new lawsuit says he asked Parson's office on Aug. 18 "whether the Office of the Missouri Governor sent or received material from 27 individuals and groups associated with dark money in Missouri, since January 9, 2017."
That's the date Greitens was sworn in as governor and Parson became lieutenant governor.
Greitens resigned from the governor's office June 1, 2018, and Parson succeeded him.
Gross' lawsuit said he told Parson and Michelle Hallford, the governor's records custodian: "The information I obtain through this request will be used to determine whether specific organizations and individuals violated federal and Missouri laws governing political campaigns."
And he asked Parson's office to waive the normal research and copying fees under a provision of the Sunshine Law that allows government agencies to forego those fees when the information sought is "in the public interest."
When the governor's office responded that they had found "13,659 documents that may be responsive" to Gross' request, but the estimated costs for providing the records would be $3,618.40 — and it would take at least 120 business days to complete that work — Gross told the court he again asked for a waiver of the fees.
Gross also said that cost is based on a $40 per hour charge for searching for the documents he wants to see, when Greitens' office charged only $19 an hour for the same search process.
And, Gross said in the 27-page lawsuit, he asked the governor's office for an explanation of the delay, since the Sunshine Law says, "If access to the public record is not granted immediately, the custodian shall give a detailed explanation of the cause for further delay and the place and earliest time and date that the record will be available for inspection."
Parson's staff never provided that information, he said.
Gross said, on Sept. 24, he asked the governor's office for "all records involving (their) response" to his Aug. 18 request — and he eventually received some records answering that request, with no fees charged.
But, he added, some of those responses were redacted, without any explanation as to why they weren't open records under the Sunshine Law.
And, Gross wrote, the governor's office never has changed its finding that he must pay $3,618.40, and have "a lengthy waiting time for responsive documents" to his first Sunshine request.
He said he also filed a complaint with the "Sunshine Complaint Unit" of Attorney General Josh Hawley's office about the governor's alleged Sunshine Law violations, but Hawley hasn't responded.
Gross noted Hawley is running for the U.S. Senate and "has received support for his campaign from individuals and organizations included in (Gross') first Sunshine Request to the Office of the Missouri Governor."
And, Gross argued, Hawley "has not investigated dark money operations in Missouri, including many of the organizations and individuals listed in (the) first Sunshine Request."
But Gross didn't name Hawley as a defendant in the suit.
Gross wants the court to find Parson and his office "knowingly" and "purposefully" violated provisions of the Sunshine Law — findings that, under the law, would allow the court to assess $1,000 fines and $5,000 civil penalties against the governor's office, in addition to awarding Gross his attorney fees and costs of filing the lawsuit.
Gross acknowledged his investigation into dark money "could affect the electability of Defendant Governor Michael Parson and Attorney General Josh Hawley," but argued they're still required to follow the Sunshine Law.
He also asked the court to order Parson's office provide the requested documents within 30 days and at no charge.