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Judge: Clay County violated law denying reporter’s request

Clay County violated a Missouri transparency law by denying a reporter’s request to inspect government records, a judge ruled this week.

Judge Roger Prokes ruled Clay County committed two violations of the Missouri Sunshine Law when it rejected a Kansas City Star reporter’s request for copies of taxpayers bills to see how much the county spends on outside lawyers. Clay County also demanded The Star pay $4,200 to have a lawyer with the Spencer law firm representing Clay County review the billing records before releasing them to a reporter.

Prokes rejected Clay County’s arguments that the law firm invoices The Star is asking for could reveal privileged attorney-client information.

“The documents were not prepared in anticipation of litigation, but in anticipation of getting paid,” Prokes wrote.

Clay County is currently in an ongoing audit by the Missouri Auditor that citizens requested after they suspected corruption by certain county leaders. Monday’s ruling adds to a string of judicial decisions against the actions and policies of Clay County government.

Assistant county administrator, Nicole Brown, said the county plans an appeal.

“The County does not believe that the Sunshine Law was intended to require the County’s taxpayers to subsidize the operations of the news media,” Brown said in an email to The Star. “Instead, the Sunshine Law is set up so that those who request records must pay the costs associated with satisfying their request. The County will appeal this decision.”

Bernie Rhodes, a lawyer representing The Star in the lawsuit, said the judge’s decision supports Clay County taxpayers’ suspicions.

“Today’s result confirms what Clay County taxpayers have known for a long time: That something is going on at the county courthouse that is wrong,” Rhodes said. “We will be filing a request to find out just how much Clay County taxpayers spent to defend this lawsuit which the county just lost.”

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