ST. LOUIS — The Missouri National Guard finally released records detailing looting after the Joplin tornado, but this move shed light on the National Guard’s exemption from the open records law.
Gov. Jay Nixon ordered the National Guard to provide the documents, which show it investigated four soldiers who admitted to taking electronic goods from a devastated Joplin Walmart on May 23, 2011, the day after the tornado struck.
But the National Guard did not need to produce the documents, because the state’s Sunshine Law allows the National Guard or state militia to “close meetings, records and votes.”
Missouri alone exempts the National Guard from revealing its records, according to Sunshine Review, a nonprofit fighting for government transparency.
Nixon’s press secretary Scott Holste provided Missouri Watchdog with a letter the governor sent Saturday to Maj. Gen. Stephen Danner, the adjutant general of the Missouri National Guard. Although the organization was not required legally to provide the information, Nixon directed Danner to comply with the requests.
“I had my counsel conduct a review of this matter and he has concluded that information regarding the Joplin incident can be released without negatively impacting operational security,” wrote Nixon, who is commander-in-chief of the state’s National Guard by virtue of his position.
State Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, told Watchdog he didn’t realize the National Guard wasn’t covered under the state’s open records law until he asked about allegations that a neo-Nazi served on the honor guard, which pays respects at Missouri veterans’ funerals.
The National Guard denied Stouffer’s request, but he said the controversy over the Joplin records may be the impetus for change.
“I suspect that will be brought up in the Legislature, and it’s worth examining,” said Stouffer, whose eight-year Senate term limit expires this year. “Anytime you’re spending taxpayer dollars, you should be as open as possible.”
State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, attempted to strengthen the Sunshine Law in the General Assembly session that ended two weeks ago. His bill, which was introduced late and did not make it out of committee, would have required taxpayer-funded organizations to give 48 hours notice before meetings and require record keeping in multiple formats to better comply with public records requests.
But the proposal did not include the National Guard.
Missouri Press Association Executive Director Doug Crews, whose organization helped craft Schaefer’s legislation, said the National Guard exemption was not on most people’s minds until the Joplin records were withheld initially.
Missouri Watchdog could not reach Schaefer for comment Wednesday.
Crews said the National Guard issue will be on the top of his agenda when the press association board meets June 14.
“This is a public agency that is taxpayer funded, and the exemption they have right now is much too broad,” he said.
Crews said he advocates a bill that would modify or delete the National Guard exemption. Such a bill must be passed by the General Assembly and signed by Nixon.
The 13 pages of National Guard records show that an internal investigation determined three specialists and a sergeant took Nintendo video game products and a Kodak digital camera, believing the electronics would be discarded. Another specialist witnessed the thefts and reported the incident.
Investigating officer Capt. Matthew Brown recommended that all four soldiers — whose names were redacted from the released files — be demoted and issued formal letters of reprimand. The disciplinary measures were not disclosed.
Missouri National Guard spokeswoman Maj. Tammy Spicer could not be reached for comment.