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Cole County prosecutor ordered to pay more than $12,000 for Sunshine Law violations

Cole County prosecutor ordered to pay...

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - One side is calling it the largest civil penalty for Sunshine Law violations in Missouri history after a circuit judge ordered the Cole County prosecuting attorney to pay more than $12,000 for seven violations.

The lawsuit stemmed from three Sunshine Law requests law student and activist Aaron Malin made back in 2015. 

Malin spoke to ABC 17 News by phone Tuesday and said he was shocked at what the judge ordered Cole County prosecutor Mark Richardson to pay. He said the Sunshine Law is something every public entity needs to follow in order to be transparent. 

The first of the three requests Malin made was in April 2015 and concerned any communication the prosecutor's office and the Mustang Drug Task Force had between each other. 

Malin got a response from Richardson that said: 

"The records you requested, even if they existed, would not be categorized. To search, categorize, and compile such records would be unduly burdensome. The costs to find and copy would be hard to calculate. Without confirming or denying the existence of records you requested, any official records of this office would be closed to the public."

It was noted in the lawsuit that Richardson admitted that he had records of communications between his office and a member of the MUSTANG Drug Task Force. 

The second request was made Oct. 22, 2015, for any indictments handed down in Cole County between July 1, 2014, to the present in regarding the sale of narcotics in public housing.

Malin got a response from Richardson saying: 

"The records you have requested are not categorized. To search, categorize, and compile such records would be unduly burdensome. The costs to find and copy would be hard to calculate. Without confirming or denying the existence of records you requested, any official records of this office would be closed to the public."

It is noted in the lawsuit the Richardson did not search for the files, but admitted that he could have gotten a report of drug sales cases.

The third was filed on Oct. 30, 2015, for any Sunshine Law requests the office received and the responses from Jan. 1, 2015, to the present. 

In a similar response to the other two requests, Richardson responded with:

"The records you have requested are not categorized. To search, categorize, and compile such records would be unduly burdensome. The costs to find and copy would be hard to calculate. Without confirming or denying the existence of records you requested, any official records of this office would be closed to the public."

Judge Patricia Joyce handed down seven violations for the lawsuit. The court awarded Malin a civil penalty of $100 for Richardson's delay in responding to Malin's first request, and $2,000 for each of Richardson's additional six violations, for a total of $12,100. 

When he was requesting information, Malin said he wasn't doing it to audit the office, but because he really wanted to know the information for research.

"I never in my wildest dreams expected all of those law enforcement agencies to violate the Sunshine Law," said Malin. "I never expected to file any lawsuits."

Not only did the judge order $12,100 to Malin, but the prosecutor has to provide the records requested and has to pay Malin's attorney's fees, which Malin said would far exceed the $12,100.

Dave Roland, the attorney on the case and director of Litigation at Freedom Center of Missouri, said in a statement to the ACLU: "Government entities all over the state routinely disregard their responsibilities under the Sunshine Law because they believe they will not face any consequences even if a court finds that they violate the law."

Joyce wrote in her judgment, "Here, Richardson refused to search for the requested records despite acknowledging that he retained records that were likely responsive to the requests and made clear that he had no intention of producing any records without a court order. He intentionally refused to provide the records or even search for any responsive records and he did so with full awareness of the consequences and with the conscience design to violate the law."

Joyce went on to say that Richardson has taught state agency officials how to respond to public records requests in the past. 


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