Sunshine lawsuit vs. Parkville in discovery phase
A Kansas City attorney who specializes in violations of Missouri’s Sunshine Law said it’s not unusual for government officials to continue to hide public records even when those documents are being requested as part of a lawsuit.
Bernie Rhodes, who specializes in the state law guarding government transparency, said the actions of Parkville officials are commonplace, even when the information requested pertains to a lawsuit. Rhodes commented to The Landmark as an outside observer. He is not involved in the lawsuit vs. Parkville.
The actions of Parkville officials, who are embroiled in a civil lawsuit with Jason Maki, “reflect common problems with getting discovery from governments,” Rhodes, of the firm Lathrop GPM, said in an emailed statement. He continued, “Not surprisingly, therefore, when someone brings a Sunshine Law lawsuit, the government continues to withhold information-only this time it withholds information during the discovery phase of the lawsuit.” He added, “So, what you see here is nothing new.”
Maki, a Parkville area resident, filed the suit after nearly two years of wrangling with Parkville officials over what he considers the illegal withholding of public documents he requested under the Missouri law. City officials have said Maki’s requests have cost the city money when they were forced to sift through hundreds of documents to meet the request.
However, Maki, who leads a citizens’ group that objects to the way the city is managed, has said the city is holding documents “hostage” in lieu of several thousand dollars in payment.
In addition, the law states that it’s illegal for high-ranking officials to sort through such materials.
Under the law, the government’s “custodian of record” are supposed to locate the records and only charge nominal fees for their actions.
Maki, who already has paid the city several thousand dollars for records he has received, claims the city’s request for additional payment exceeds the law’s boundaries.
The citizens’ group was formed after some residents objected to the city’s handling of the development of Creekside, a large project by developer Brian Mertz.
The group has charged that they believe public officials improperly negotiated with Mertz in private meetings, outside of the public eye. But officials have stated they followed the letter of the law by holding hearings to get public input.
Rhodes has said he believes government officials are emboldened to resist Sunshine compliance by the country’s top official, President Donald Trump, who has “waged a war” against the press and their attempts at uncovering government action, labeling their reporting as “fake news.”
In one court document, available on Missouri Casenet, a website that tracks court cases in the state, Maki says that attorney Steven Coronado of Kansas City firm LG Law, referred to him as an “asshole” after Maki informed him he would file a “motion to compel” for information the city is not releasing as part of the lawsuit.
“Lead counsel for the defendant ended the call shortly thereafter and closed the conversation by referring to the plaintiff as ‘an asshole,’ the document states.
The motion is part of the discovery process in which both sides seek to learn the evidence held by the other side prior to trial, Rhodes said. If either side is not forthcoming, the other party can file a “motion to compel,” or a hearing with a judge who determines what information should be shared.
If the judge orders the release of information and the party refuses, the judge can find them in contempt of court, which brings a plethora of possibilities, including fines and other legal action, Rhodes said.
Rhodes said it’s “not unusual for a lawyer to use language like that,” but also not advisable. If the term were used, “It’s clearly unprofessional,” he said during a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon.
He added that the “plaintiff could report him to the Missouri Bar Association, which oversees the state’s attorneys. That’s not how lawyers are supposed to conduct themselves,” he said.
“This is no longer the wild, wild West,” Rhodes explained, adding that the law was changed years ago to allow both sides to learn evidence to be used in court. He explained that the rule “helps with the resolution” and makes a subsequent trial “more efficient.” He added, “You don’t want the jury sitting around while the lawyers and the judge” seek information, he said.
However, Rhodes said the legal steps, currently engaged in by Maki and the city, are “nowhere near that stage (motion to compel) yet,” adding that the entire process is lengthy and takes time.