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Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has brought on a new private attorney to represent his office in litigation dating back to his predecessor over the use of an app that automatically deletes text messages after they've been read.

Scott Pool, a Jefferson City attorney, will take over for the Bryan Cave law firm, which since 2018 has been paid more than $400,000 to defend the state in a lawsuit over former Gov. Eric Greitens' use of the self-destructing text message app Confide.

According to a letter obtained by The Missouri Independent authorizing him to bill the state's legal defense fund, Pool will be paid $140 an hour for his work.

Neither Pool nor the Governor's Office responded to a request for clarification on whether he or his firm will also be billing the Governor's Office.

That was the arrangement with Bryan Cave, which billed only a small portion of their expenses to the Attorney General's Office, which administers the legal defense fund. The rest was paid by the Governor's Office at a much higher hourly rate of $370 an hour.

In response to a request under Missouri's Sunshine Law for a copy of any engagement letters with private attorneys or law firms, the Governor's Office said it had "no known records to produce that are responsive to your request."

Pool and another attorney at his firm, Adam Herrmann, notified Missouri's Western District Court of Appeals that they were representing the Governor's Office on July 1. The court has yet to schedule the case for arguments.

Self-destructing texts

Parson bringing on a new attorney is the latest development in a lawsuit that began in late 2017 after The Kansas City Star revealed Greitens and his staff were using Confide.

The app allows someone to send a text message that vanishes without a trace after it is read. It also prevents anyone from saving, forwarding, printing or taking a screenshot of the message.

Mark Pedroli, a St. Louis County attorney and founder of the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project, filed the lawsuit after The Star's story, arguing that Missouri's Sunshine Law forbids deletion, destruction or even removal of public records without the consent of an office's custodian of records.

By using Confide, Pedroli argued, Greitens and his staff were conspiring to ensure certain records could not be produced pursuant to an open records request.

Over the course of the lawsuit, Pedroli was able to determine that nearly every member of the former governor's taxpayer-funded staff had a Confide account and that the app was being used to communicate both within the Governor's Office and with outside allies and lobbyists.

Greitens' office was allowed to hire private attorneys to defend against the lawsuit because, at the time it was filed, then-Attorney General Josh Hawley was in the middle of his own investigation into whether the governor's Confide use violated state law.

Hawley ultimately concluded there was no evidence of wrongdoing, in part because, he said, he could not find evidence thanks to a lack of subpoena power and the app's ability to delete messages.

Greitens resigned in June 2018 and was replaced by Parson, who was at the time serving as lieutenant governor. Parson maintained the contract with Bryan Cave and continued vigorously defending the lawsuit.

Parson banned the use of Confide inside the Governor's Office when he took over for Greitens.

And since succeeding Hawley in January 2019, Attorney General Eric Schmitt has said the conflict of interest still exists that requires the governor to seek outside counsel.

In 2019, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem dismissed most of the lawsuit, ruling that the destruction of records would constitute a violation of the state's record retention laws, not the Sunshine Law.

Beetem concluded that private citizens have no right to sue over a violation of the retention law — a position transparency advocates said would create a loophole in Missouri's Sunshine Law.

One count in Pedroli's lawsuit remained after Beetem's 2019 ruling. Pedroli argued the Governor's Office illegally withheld information from public records regarding mobile phone numbers used by Greitens while he was in office.

Earlier this year, after initially ruling in Pedroli's favor and declaring the governor's office in violation of the law, Beetem reversed course and dismissed Pedroli's final claim. Pedroli filed an appeal to Missouri's Western District Court of Appeals in April, asking the court to throw out Beetem's ruling that Missouri residents have no right to sue if there is a violation of the state's record retention law.

The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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