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Newspaper accounts of the Sunshine Law suit

The following editorial comments are the sole responsibility of the keeper of this website, Patrick Rock. All comments regarding them should be directed toward me. I was not an official participant in the lawsuit (not being a resident of Jackson County), but I have assisted in this case from its beginning.

Following are the newspaper articles that appeared in The Kansas City Star and the Independence Examiner during the course a Sunshine Law lawsuit brought by Anastasia's father and Karen Turner, the mother of a friend of hers against the Jackson County Missouri Office of Human Relations and Citizen Complaints (OHRCC) during 2000-2002, and of the aftermath, which has so far resulted in resignations by two members of the Commission, and the eventual firing of both County Counselor Jane McQueeny and OHRCC Director Deborah Tircuit.

The OHRCC received a complaint from Karen Turner regarding the endangerment of her daughter by a Sheriff's Deputy in relation to Anastasia's murder investigation, and then its commission illegally closed a meeting in order to whitewash the Sheriff's Department's actions. Six months later, following a letter from the Attorney General's office, the commission illegally closed a second meeting in order to discuss the illegally closed first meeting.

After nearly a year of refusing to discuss the matter openly, the Director and Commissioners were sued for violations of the Sunshine Law.

In January 2002, Jackson County Judge Thomas Clark found OHRCC to have purposefully violated the Sunshine Law, but then made a bizarre decision to force the plaintiffs to bear the cost of the litigation, totaling more than $35,000.

Afterward, Judge Clark claimed that it was the plaintiffs' responsibility to have brought up attorneys fees during the trial itself, and that he ruled not to assess them for that reason alone. In fact, we asked the Judge to award attorneys fees in our very first brief before the court, in every written motion following, and verbally in court, and a transcript of the trial shows that Judge Clark allowed no discussion of specific fees, but allowed less than five minutes verbal discussion of the merits of assessing legal fees. It was as if he had always intended to deny the plaintiffs' right to legal fees.

The truth, which can be gleaned from the news stories of the trial (January 16 - February 13, 2002), show that Judge Clark's only reason for failing to assess fees was his concern "imposing the fees on citizen-commissioners might discourage well-intentioned citizens from serving on local boards and commissions." He stated at the close of the trial that he would have preferred to assign costs directly to the Jackson County government, and that he categorically would not assess them against the individuals, vastly and unfairly narrowing the plaintiffs' options in this case. Nowhere in his statements did he indicate that the plaintiffs' attorney had failed to bring up the issue of legal fees in a timely manner. The truth is that Judge Clark got it wrong, and his incompetence cost the plaintiffs in this case in excess of $35,000.

Clark also failed in his duties to void the decision of OHRCC, stating in his judgment that the plaintiffs hadn't asked him to do so during the trial; while the plaintiffs did ask him to do so in their petition, he refused to allow any discussion of the matter other than his own perception. It was also apparent that Judge Clark did not read the Sunshine Law very closely, as it was not the plaintiffs' responsibility to ask, but only his to decide whether the public interest was served by voiding the decision. As a jurist, Thomas Clark made an excellent politician in this case.

As this case was beginning, Judge Clark learned that this writer was a resident of Wyandotte County, Kansas, and told me that he grew up in Wyandotte County and that I'd see some "Dotteland" justice in his courtroom. If that were really true, I would consider moving to another county. This was not "Dotteland" justice. This was not justice in any form.

Besides Judge Clark's strange ruling, the case featured the Jackson County Counselor's Office, which has duties to the citizens of Jackson County, acting as if it were defense attorney for a tobacco company, spending between $30,000 and $50,000 of taxpayer money to defend a case that should have never gone to court, solely in an attempt to bankrupt the plaintiffs.

Since this case, the Sunshine Law has been amended to remove from a judge's hands the kind of discretion that Tom Clark wielded so arbitrarily and incompetently. The good news is that were this case prosecuted today, Judge Clark would be unable to hurt a private citizen the way he did us, and the defendants would not be able to employ some of the same tactics they used in our case. The bad news is that it is not retroactive, and the damage Clark wrought remains. Further bad news is that Clark still sits on the Bench, unapologetic and as arrogantly incompetent as before.

County Counselor Jane McQueeny was not an elected official, but merely appointed by County Executive Katheryn Shields, who herself was once convicted of Sunshine Law violations, and did not answer to the taxpayers. In remarks to the County Legislature, she made it clear that she believed her prime responsibility was to her "clients", and the County Counselor's Office still refuses to divulge any details to the taxpayers who were forced to foot the bill for this action without any consultation. Robert WitbolsFeugen filed an official complaint about Ms. McQueeny's actions with the Missouri Bar Association on September 9, 2002. Jane McQueeny has since been forced to step down as Jackson County Counselor as a direct result of this bar complain, and her case is still pending. When her resignation was announced on January 1, 2003, it was stated by County spokesman Ken Evans that McQueeny's replacement would probably be found within two weeks. It was not until nearly two years later that a replacement was finally named, and that replacement, Ed Rucker, has shown an equal arrogance in his disregard for open government.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to the Independence Examiner for their continuing coverage of this story, (specifically to reporters Darla McFarland and James Dornbrook, as well as editor Dale Brendel), and a tremendous "No Thanks" to the Kansas City Star for its general refusal to report anything on the story except the comments of Jackson County officials. During the same period this lawsuit was working, the Star very thoroughly covered the Sunshine Law cases of the Kansas City Board of Education and of the Piper, Kansas USD, but relegated this this one to its Metro Section, and even then only quoted the County Counselor's office as saying the case "had no merit". Glenn Rice, Star Metro reporter, never adequately explained this newspaper censorship, except to claim that he wrote different stories that what were printed, but that Assistant City Editor Mike Casey had quashed them. Mr. Rice has since been transferred from his duties for reasons unrelated to our case.

The Star's Assistant Missouri Desk Editor, Randy Smith, maintains that his paper covered this story adequately, and we do stand corrected that the Star did report the verdict in the trial. Of course, we must point out that the report came eleven days after the verdict, was on buried page B-4 of the Metro section (opposite the obituaries), and the paper never reported that Judge Clark had stuck the plaintiffs with the legal fees. Mr. Smith has claimed that the Star has won "several" Sunshine Law cases in which it proved purposefulness but still failed to collect its attorney fees, but refused to give a single example when pressed. He also seems to fail to understand or acknowledge that even if that were true, a newspaper not collecting its attorney fees can usually claim it as a business expense and a tax write-off, while an individual is simply out tens of thousands of dollars.

At the same time this story was being buried (and did not even appear in all local editions of the Star), writer Laura Scott wrote an editorial piece extolling the Judge's work "protecting" the Sunshine Law. When presented with the information that Judge Clark had actually driven a dagger into the heart of the law, and that the County was even paying the fines for the guilty parties, she refused to write anything to correct the false impression her editorial had given. As far as any casual reader of the Star can tell, Ms. Scott's inaccurate claims were the entire story.

We have criticized the Star on this web site and in a speech given when Robert WitbolsFeugen accepted the Missouri Press Association's Sunshine Law Award, and we are aware through Mr. Smith that members of the Star are displeased with our criticism. Mr. Smith has accused us of being "unfair" to the paper, and even of being "pushy" with certain Star reporters, though he again refused to give any specifics when asked to do so.

First, as to any "unfairness", the Star has never given us specifics as to what we've said that is so "unfair", and we hasten to point out that the Star is a large metropolitan newspaper and wields a great deal of control over the opinions of taxpayers and voters just by what news it chooses to report or not to report, and that we . . . well, we have just this website. We are not being untruthful here. Just how "unfair" can we get, Mr. Smith?

Second, we do admit that we have attempted to convince Star reporters and editors to do a story on this issue (we also admit to trying to influence our elected representatives with our arguments), though we have never had the power to exercise undue influence, as the County Executive or her appointed Counselor do, and we believe it to be a sad state of affairs that it was even necessary to try to convince them of a story, when the story was and still is so obviously there in front of them.

Independence Examiner, 07/08/00 Suit alleges county violated state law
Independence Examiner, 1/16/02 Families say Sunshine Law was broken
Independence Examiner, 1/17/02 Citizens outline difficulties getting information on case
Independence Examiner, 1/18/02 Open records case nears conclusion
Independence Examiner, 1/19/02 Testimony continues in Sunshine Law case
Independence Examiner, 1/23/02 Judge finds violation of law
Independence Examiner, 1/30/02 Legislators to discuss Sunshine Law Case
Independence Examiner, 2/07/02 A storm over Sunshine
Independence Examiner, 2/12/02 Citizens must shoulder cost of Sunshine lawsuit
Independence Examiner, 2/13/02 Editorial: Outrage is compounded
Independence Examiner, 3/05/02 Counselor won't talk about Sunshine case
Independence Examiner, 3/06/02 Editorial: Answer to the public
Independence Examiner, 4/04/02 Counselors don't log time
Springfield News-Leader, 4/07/02 Editorial: When winners get $33,000 bill, Sunshine Law needs to be fixed
Independence Examiner, 4/09/02 Stalemate continues over counselor fees
Independence Examiner, 4/18/02 Protesters call for more openness
Independence Examiner, 4/20/02 Editorial: Protest isn't a big threat
Independence Examiner, 4/23/02 Sunshine advocate continues pressing
Independence Examiner, 5/01/02 Counselor opts not to track hours
Independence Examiner, 5/02/02 Editorial: What were they thinking?
Independence Examiner, 5/14/02 Jackson County News: Callahan makes Sunshine Law request
Independence Examiner, 5/16/02 Editorial: Release the information
Independence Examiner, 5/29/02 Legislature, McQueeny spar again
Independence Examiner, 6/04/02 Jackson County News: Callahan responds to Counselor's request
Independence Examiner, 7/24/02 County legislators to debate ruling's effect
Independence Examiner, 7/30/02 Rules committee to meet
Independence Examiner, 8/06/02 County seeks advice on Sunshine Law
Independence Examiner, 9/20/02 Citizens' pursuit of open records earns an honor
Independence Examiner, 9/21/02 WitbolsFeugen starts new fight with county counselor
Independence Examiner, 9/26/02 Jackson County News: Attorney hired by Legislature
Independence Examiner, 9/30/02 MPA honors citizens
Independence Examiner, 9/30/02 Black eye for county
Independence Examiner, 10/05/02 Local man fights for open government
Northland Sun-News, 10/23/02 Unanimity on 'no excuse' for breaking law, but politicians still getting by with doing so
Kansas City Star, 11/22/02 Jackson County commission adopts rules for hearings into complaints
Independence Examiner, 11/23/02 OHRCC powers in writing
Independence Examiner, 01/02/03 Shields looking for new counselor
Independence Examiner, 01/24/03 Pay raise given to key official of county agency
Independence Examiner, 05/30/03 Editorial: Opportunity missed again
Independence Examiner, 06/13/03 More bar complaints filed in Sunshine Law case
Independence Examiner, 06/21/03 County may review OHRCC
Independence Examiner, 06/24/03 County weighs changes for complaint commission
Independence Examiner, 10/18/03 County commission dwindles in numbers, purpose
Independence Examiner, 11/15/03 County eyes impartial review of citizen complaints office
Independence Examiner, 03/10/04 Ombudsman recommended for review of county office
Independence Examiner, 03/26/04 Seattle man to review OHRCC
Independence Examiner, 10/12/04 Report urges greater independence for county ombudsman
Independence Examiner, 03/01/05 Legislators debate complaints office
Kansas City Star, 03/01/05 Complaint department a 'sham', legislator says
Independence Examiner, 03/08/05 Human relations panel might face changes
Kansas City Star, 03/23/05 Changes ahead for complaint office
Independence Examiner, 06/25/05 Politics behind firing?
Kansas City Star, 06/25/05 County complaint director dismissed
Please check here for news accounts of the murder and subsequent "investigation", and here for news accounts of the arrest, trial, conviction, and sentencing of Byron Case for Anastasia's murder.

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