Our View

No one is ever going to mistake the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services for a transparent and public-minded organization.

The latest shadow fell over this agency following questions about whether it and the Missouri attorney general's office have been forthcoming with documents regarding the launch of medical marijuana in Missouri. The launch was bound to be controversial, with winners and losers. A Sarcoxie family, the Callicoats, want to know more about the decision to deny their request to grow medical marijuana. To that end, they have requested records from DHSS and are now alleging, as part of their lawsuit, that the agency and the AG's office concealed documents that are subject to the laws of discovery and that the Missouri Sunshine law, which governs open records and open meetings, was violated.

The Callicoats and their attorneys argue: "All of this behavior appears aimed at the same goal: to prevent anyone, especially this court, from being able to examine the rules of the medical marijuana program in the full light of day, to prohibit plaintiffs access to the public records the defendants are legally obligated to provide, and to do all they can to delay the hearing on this matter on October 29, 2020."

The courts will have to sort this out, but it appears something was amiss because on June 15, DHSS provided the Missouri House of Representatives with roughly 37,000 records outlining their contacts with people in the industry, documents that help explain how decisions were made. At that same time, the Callicoats and their attorney were also seeking these kinds of documents from the department, but they claim that it took until August to receive only 15,000 records. They had to file a separate Sunshine request with the House to get the rest of the documents.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office has called the allegations that his office and DHSS withheld records and violated Missouri's Sunshine Law “frivolous” and “baseless.”

We'll wait and see.

What doesn't appear to be in dispute, according to the lawsuit, is that Randall Williams, director of DHSS, conducted state business on his personal cellphone.

The suit alleges, "Dr. Williams further acknowledged that he never took any steps to save his text messages discussing state business to a state computer, even though that is expressly required under the Sunshine Law."

Former Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley was unambiguous in his interpretation of Missouri law: “Text messages should be treated like, and subject to, the same analysis as emails,” Hawley said in 2017. It does not matter whether the messages are sent on a state-owned phone or on a personal cellphone — texts and phone calls of public officials conducting public business belong to the public.

Given the difficulty the media and the public have had getting records from DHSS, given the agency's history of being uncooperative and concocting road blocks to releasing public records, and given that DHSS was just fined $12,000 in April for multiple violations of state law governing open records, we think it's time for new public-minded and transparent leadership at the agency, regardless of who wins next week's election.

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