It was ugly — though not surprising — this recent glimpse inside the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. We got a look after a company that specializes in genealogical records and research made a simple and straightforward request for birth and death records. Instead of complying, the agency concocted what a judge characterized as a "secret" and "devious" plan to thwart the law, and it will now cost taxpayers a lot of money.
A Cole County judge ruled recently that the Department of Health and Senior Services "knowingly" and "purposely" committed violations of Missouri's Sunshine Law, which protects public access to records and meetings. What happened after the request was made tells us a lot about the mindset of an agency that does not uphold its responsibility to the public.
None of this will surprise anyone who has ever tried to get public information out of this public agency, only to find they couldn't pry it loose with a crowbar.
The problem began in 2016 when Reclaim the Records sought birth and death indices beginning from 1910 in Missouri. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services replied that it would cost $1.49 million to fulfill its part of the request, based on an estimated 35,000 employee hours needed to find and review the records — at a rate of around $42 an hour.
Think about that for a minute — DHSS claimed that one person working eight hours a day, five days a week, would need nearly 12 years to provide computerized — and public — records to the public.
That's ludicrous on its face.
After Kansas City lawyer Bernard Rhodes, who represented Reclaim the Records, argued the request could be fulfilled with simple date-range searches, the health department sent a revised estimate of $5,000 — but that was still double allowable costs. Rhodes again objected.
So DHSS responded by denying Reclaim the Records’ request altogether.
In fact, it implemented what the judge called a "secret plan to deny the Sunshine Law requests," and instead decided to force Reclaim the Records to file a lawsuit. The agency then tried to get state law amended so it wouldn't have to cooperate.
"It's hard to imagine a more purposeful plot," the judge wrote, adding that DHSS showed "utter disdain for public policy."
Brooke Schreier Ganz, founder and president of Reclaim the Records, raised an important question that was never answered by DHSS: Why? “This is a form of public data that is easily and freely available in other states."
The judge ruled that the information sought by Reclaim the Records was obviously public and DHSS should have charged no more than $2,557 — or "three-tenths of 1%" of the original estimate.
She also fined the agency $12,000 for multiple violation of state law and ordered it to pay $150,000 to Reclaim the Records for legal fees. Of course, this will come out of public money, so we doubt there's enough of a sting to make this lesson stick. In fact, DHSS is considering appealing, adding to its legal costs.
To find — in the middle of a pandemic, no less — that the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services willfully defied the law and did not understand its obligation to the public means a Hercules is needed to clean out this stable in Jefferson City.