Ex-Blunt aide gets letter clearing his reputation

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. | An aide who claimed he was wrongly fired by former Gov. Matt Blunt's administration after raising concerns about office e-mail deletions has received some long-sought vindication from the state.

Former Blunt aide Scott Eckersley released a letter Tuesday from Attorney General Chris Koster defending Eckersley's reputation and concluding that — contrary to public assertions from Blunt's administration — Eckersley had offered advice about Missouri's open-records law.

The state agreed in May to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit from Eckersley alleging he was defamed and wrongfully terminated in September 2007 after questioning the e-mail deletion practices in Blunt's office. Blunt has maintained Eckersley was fired for legitimate reasons, and the settlement included no admission of wrongdoing by any parties.

Although the terms of the settlement made no mention of it, Eckersley has insisted he also was promised a letter clearing his reputation from Gov. Jay Nixon, a former state attorney general who succeeded Blunt in January.

Nixon's administration commissioner provided Eckersley a letter in July stating he “found no substantiation” for “certain justifications” that had been publicly offered for his firing. But Eckersley said that didn't suffice and complained that Nixon had declined to sign a letter himself.

Koster's letter is more specific. It states that evidence refutes assertions that Eckersley never offered advice about the Sunshine Law; that Eckersley had received permission to do limited legal work for his family while employed by the governor's office; and that there is no basis for accusations that Eckersley was possibly using illegal drugs.

“When reading the two letters together, it's clear that this is an exoneration, and that I accomplished what I set out to do,” Eckersley said. “The principles in this suit are what were important to me, and one of those principles was clearing my name both personally and professionally.”

Koster's letter says it was written to allow Eckersley to move forward “without any misconceptions remaining.”

Deputy Attorney General Joseph Dandurand, who negotiated the settlement and subsequent letter, said it also was written to ensure taxpayers wouldn't be on the hook for than the $1.5 million that already has been spent on the case.

To get the letter, Eckersley signed an agreement not to take any further legal action against the state. He also agreed to settle a financial dispute with his former attorneys by paying them about $210,000.

Dandurand said the private agreement between Eckersley and his attorneys was important, because the state could have incurred costs representing witnesses if the attorney-fee dispute had gone to court.

“It was the attorney general's belief that everybody would be better off putting an end to this litigation,” Dandurand said.

But an attorney for Blunt said Koster had no business signing a letter for Eckersley that went beyond the terms of the settlement.

“The letter is totally inappropriate,” said Blunt attorney Jerry Hunter, of St. Louis. He equated Koster's letter to “a theoretical op-ed piece that's not based on any facts.”

Dandurand said the letter was factually accurate and was written after he reviewed documents provided by attorneys for Eckersley and the defendants.

Eckersley attorney Steve Garner confirmed Tuesday that he had signed the settlement with Eckersley regarding attorney fees, but Garner said he did not ask the attorney general's office to get involved in the dispute.

Garner also backed up Eckersley's assertion that Nixon's office originally had pledged to provide a letter. Garner said he had interpreted that to mean Nixon himself. But Nixon's office has said there was no promise that the governor himself would sign an exoneration letter.

Members of Garner's Springfield law firm of Strong-Garner-Bauer have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Koster and Nixon, and had contributed to Blunt.