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Two groups sue to get state-worker data provided to union

For years, Missouri has handed over data on state employees to a public-sector workers’ union. Now two conservative groups are suing a state agency in Cole County Circuit Court to obtain that data.

On Aug. 28, the nonprofit Show-Me Institute and its director of public accountability, Patrick Ishmael, filed the first action. It was followed a week later by a suit from the social-welfare group United for Missouri, along with its CEO Carl Bearden and senior advisor Ryan Johnson. Bearden clarified “there was no coordinated effort” among the two groups of plaintiffs.

The allegation common to both complaints is that Missouri’s Office of Administration keeps records related to the identities, jobs and mailing addresses of state workers, and it also transmits this data on a quarterly basis to the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees — the nation’s largest public-sector union to which many state employees belong. Yet the state is refusing to release much of the data to the plaintiffs, who see that refusal as a violation of the Sunshine Law.

The Office of Administration did not respond to a request for comment, and as of Sept. 12, no attorney had entered an appearance on its behalf in either case.

The Show-Me Institute, a think-tank whose website describes its mission as “promoting free markets and individual liberty,” filed its action to fight for the principles of equality and transparency, said the group’s attorney, David Roland.

“The government can’t pick and choose who’s going to receive public information,” said Roland, a self-described classical liberal who practices from his own 501(c)(3), the Freedom Center.

At United for Missouri, which is a 501(c)(4), Bearden said he and the co-plaintiffs in his suit had the same motivation, in addition to another one: the desire to inform state workers of their right to opt out of certain organized-labor arrangements.

In 2018, then-Gov. Eric Greitens signed what’s commonly referred to as HB 1413. It requires certain unionized government employees to opt in to letting the union withdraw dues from their paychecks. It also requires these employees to reauthorize the union every year to use their dues and fees to make political contributions.

These new laws are currently in legal limbo as a result of litigation, Bearden pointed out. Yet in the expectation that they will take effect, Bearden said, he and Johnson submitted their Sunshine requests.

“We wanted to be ready and positioned to help all public-sector employees in the state to be informed of their rights,” Bearden said. He and his co-plaintiffs are represented by Marc Ellinger and Stephanie Bell of Ellinger & Associates in Jefferson City.

In both lawsuits, the plaintiffs allege that in response to their Sunshine requests for the same databases that AFSCME regularly receives, the Office of Administration offered only a set of Excel spreadsheets with 63 of 70 data columns redacted. The state argued that the redacted data fell under “individually identifiable personnel records,” which are exempt from disclosure.

According to the Show-Me Institute’s complaint, during the run-up to the filing of the suits the Office of Administration’s legal counsel, Kelly A. Hopper, wrote in a letter on Aug. 12 that it’s “not accurate” to say that the databases have been provided to the union under the Sunshine Law. Rather, she argued, “the documents were provided pursuant to the Master Labor Agreement between AFSCME and various executive departments of the State of Missouri.”

Roland argued in “a warning letter” to the agency that it “may not rely on a contract with a private party” to justify granting that entity “exclusive access to public information that would otherwise be ‘closed’ pursuant to the Sunshine Law.”

Hopper wrote in her letter: “I can assure you that the Office of Administration has not entered into a contract granting anyone, including AFSCME, ‘the exclusive right to access and disseminate any public record.’”

Roland argued in the complaint that “If AFSCME is the only private entity to which the Office has agreed to provide certain public information and if AFSCME is not legally obligated to keep that public information confidential, then as a matter of law the Office has given AFSCME an exclusive right to access and disseminate [it] . . . even if AFSCME has thus far chosen not to disseminate that information.”

Both groups of plaintiffs are asking for declaratory judgments finding that the Office of Administration knowingly violated the Sunshine Law and for a judicial order requiring the agency to furnish the data and pay attorneys’ fees.

The cases are Show-Me Institute et al. v. Office of Administration et al., 19AC-CC00391 and United for Missouri et al. v. Office of Administration et al., 19AC-CC00398.