Independence Examiner, Saturday 10/05/02

Local man fights for open government

Since his daughter, Anastasia, was murdered in 1997, Independence resident Bob WitbolsFeugen has been waging a battle with Jackson County officials over developments stemming from the investigation into the case. The perpetrator was convicted of murder nearly four years after it happened, and a county commission was found guilty of breaking the open government laws, commonly known as the Sunshine Law. WitbolsFeugen, 50, who works for the Internal Revenue Service, remains embroiled in legal issues with the county over his attorney fees. Last week, WitbolsFeugen and Karen Turner were honored with the Sunshine Award by the Missouri Press Association, and he has been asked to help with lobbying efforts in Jefferson City to strengthen the state's open records/open meetings law. This week, WitbolsFeugen sat down for a conversation with Executive Editor Dale Brendel.

Q: How did this all get started? How did we get to the point we are now?

A: In October of 1997 my daughter Anastasia was murdered. She had been out with friends that evening, and the people that were with her basically said they did not know what happened. They said she got out of the car. It was shortly after that, about a week or so, that Karen Turner's daughter said she had heard information regarding what happened and I encouraged her and her mother encouraged her to go to the Sheriff's Department and tell that story. When she revealed that information, the officer asked Karen's daughter, who was 17 at the time, to keep her ears open and to go out and talk to those people and get more information.

Well, in investigating what she said, they revealed that Paige Turner had said these things. In fact, the evidence she had pointed directly to the person who was convicted ... . Shortly after Paige's name was revealed to a friend of the convicted murderer, Paige received death threats and was the subject of intimidation. We felt that put Karen's daughter in danger, and we forwarded a complaint to the Human Relations department in Jackson County, which has the authority to investigate such things when the Sheriff's Department wouldn't talk to us about what they had done.

That complaint process took more than a year when it culminated in a no-decision. They did determine that the disclosure of the name did place this girl in danger and that apparently Karen Turner, her mother, had a justified complaint. Nothing was done to justify that dilemma. We asked for a hearing. The OHRCC (Office of Human Relations and Citizen Complaints) has within its charter the ability to conduct a hearing and issue subpoenas on the complaint and find the facts. We had a hearing in May of 1999, open session. The officer we complained about did not attend. Only the sheriff attended, and I say "only" because he was unaware of the circumstances and the exact nature of the complaint. The Sheriff's Department was represented by (County Counselor) Jane McQueeny in defense. Jane McQueeny, basically, asserted that no procedures were broken, no laws were violated, and that the Sheriff's Department used their discretion in what they did.

The commission had a closed meeting to discuss the facts and issue a decision. That meeting was held in July of 1999. They withheld from Karen Turner and the public the decision they made in the closed meeting for three months.

Q: And that was a Sunshine Law violation, correct?

A: It was a Sunshine Law violation for them not to reveal the decision for three months, but it was also a Sunshine Law violation because they met in a closed meeting that they didn't even vote on and that is not covered under the exceptions for having a closed meeting. During that closed meeting they created documents regarding their discussion. That document was not properly closed, nor did it record anything that would have maintained that that record should have been closed. Because we could not understand why nothing could be done in this situation we asked, "What facts did you look at to make your determination." Well, we found out that the Sheriff's Department and Jane McQueeny had not submitted a single bit of evidence or documentation. Karen Turner had several documents that were submitted and should have been considered.

Q: Ultimately, the judge decided in your favor that there were Sunshine Law violations?

A: That's correct. He determined that not only that meeting but another meeting which the OHRCC had were illegally closed, that the documents related to Karen Turner's complaint were also illegally closed, and that they purposefully had violated the Sunshine Law by withholding that information.

Q: What is the issue now?

A: The issue now is that the judge made no decision to reimburse the attorneys' fees, which had cost me to prove that these meetings were illegally closed and that the documents were illegally withheld. It cost me a great deal of money.

Q: How much?

A: It has cost me over $35,000 in attorney fees to prosecute this case.

Q: Do you have a complaint now with the County Legislature to review that decision?

A: I have two issues before the legislative body. One is that the Jackson County Charter allows the legislative body to review the decision of OHRCC, and we ask that they review that decision because it was done in an illegally closed meeting. And the other issue is that because Jane McQueeny, the county counselor, misrepresented the law in this case and should have been more forthcoming about the liability of the county in this case, that because she misrepresented the law and, in fact, argued directly against what (County Ordinance Chapter 16) stated, that we're asking them to consider whether the county should profit from her behavior that is contrary to her position. She has a conflict of interest. She has created a misperception of what county law allows.

Q: And we're awaiting a decision on those issues?

A: We're waiting, since I forwarded that request to the legislative body in June of this year. They sent this issue to a committee, and it languished there for more than two months. The purpose was to determine whether they would want to review this and whether they would seek the advice of an independent attorney to ask them to review this because they recognized the county counselor had a conflict of interest in providing information.

Q: Why is this case so important?

A: This case is important because any citizen that has an issue with the way the county or any government agency complies with the Sunshine Law should be able to resolve that issue without incurring a great deal of personal expense. The law itself allows that these expenses are reimbursed for a declaration that the documents were purposefully withheld. Because the judge found that these documents were purposefully withheld and that the meetings were intentionally closed without legal exception, that I should have been reimbursed these fees automatically.

Q: Is this a dangerous precedent?

A: This is a dangerous precedent because we proved that they purposefully did this act and I am not allowed to recoup the cost that I had to incur to prove that.

Q: And what was the penalty to the county government for this infraction?

A: Jackson County incurred an expense for not only defending these individuals, but they paid a $500 fine on behalf of the commissioners, and that was their only cost.

Q: How many commissioners are on this board?

A: There are eight commissioners and a director.

Q: How many were found guilty?

A: They were all found guilty of having violated the law. Three individuals were found to have acted purposefully in that violation. The individuals were Greg Gerstener, an attorney, Michael Hunter, and attorney, and the director of the OHRCC (Deborah Turcuit).

Q: What has happened to those members of the commission?

A: They have all been reappointed to the commission, and the director has maintained her job. Apparently, nothing has happened.

Q: What has been the reaction of county officials to you? I have heard you referred to as a pest or the guest who won't go home.

A: (Laughing) Well, I am persistent. I am persistent because I feel this issue weighs heavily on the ethics of the actions between the county government and the people of this county. Everything should be above board in dealing with this issue because anyone could be placed in such a position. If this issue is not going to be dealt with fairly, there's probably lots of other issues that are not going to be dealt with fairly. So I want to make sure that the avenue for redress of this grievance, which is on the facts obviously not justifiable, that they should look at it again.

Q: What do you hope to gain out of this?

A: One, is that the Sunshine Laws' actions would be upheld. That we might assume the judge would have assessed attorneys fees had he been correctly informed, and that would maintain some usefulness of the Sunshine Law. The second is that if the county currently has no means for dealing with this type of issue, will they institute a procedure for redress of this type of grievance?

Q: You attend all the OHRCC meetings, correct? Has there been any change that you have notice in procedures?

A: I have attended almost all the OHRCC meetings since we filed the complaint in March of 1999. I find that the actions of OHRCC are like they have done nothing wrong, that there is no fault for any of them for having violated the law. They actually have joked about my actions to prove they had done wrong. That I'm the one responsible for making the county defend this. That the costs incurred were due to my actions entirely. That this would have been all right to do, and that I should not have drug them in to court.

The director has asked for a raise, and she'll probably get it. They have already voted the money into their budget. This coming week, the commission has voted to close another meeting to discuss the director's performance and her job. This is the first time in the four years that they have even done a performance review on her work. She has been in her job for almost seven years, since 1994 I believe. There's no record of ever having reviewed her performance of her job. The commissioners are the only ones authorized to take that action. But they have not done so.

Q. The Missouri Press Association last weekend honored you and Karen Turner with the Sunshine Award for your battle on this issue. Do you plan on trying to take this case to the state level?

A. Yes. ... I think ... I could tell Jefferson City and the legislators exactly what the law's shortcomings are, and that it would be very important to amend those shortcomings so that the Sunshine Law works for the citizens it was instituted for.

Q: What kind of a personal toll has this whole ordeal taken on you? I know you have mentioned the $35,000 in legal fees. What other costs have there been?

A: Well, because of the non-resolution of the original complaint before OHRCC, the investigation of my daughter's murder took a lot longer than it should have. The investigation of my daughter's murder was as a result of another witness coming forward, another juvenile at the time of the murder, who was afraid to step forward with the information she knew because of this. With Jackson County Sheriff's Department saying that they had done nothing wrong and that they were entitled to disclose the name of any witness, this other witness obviously was put in further danger. If she had come forward her name could have been revealed and that would have placed her in danger, thus causing a problem for another family, another witness, plus it delayed the resolution of my daughter's murder.

Personal cost: I have spent a time of researching the law and forwarding issues to people who should have been there to help me. I have gone to the attorney general's office, I have gone to the county prosecutor's office. I have petitioned the county legislators individually and as a group. All of this takes time. And in order that I prepare for these meetings, I have had to take more time. I am thoroughly convinced that the issues should be addressed by the public representatives and I am quite disappointed in my own government for not having done so.

Talk about the personal cost, what it has cost me is a lot of faith and trust in my own government for resolving this type of issue.

Q: How has this affected you in coping with your daughter's murder? Has it prolonged the pain over a longer period of time, or has it served as a catharsis to deal with the grief?

A: I feel that individuals can take charge of being victimized by circumstances and by the law and by government officials that would do nothing. That they can take charge and that they should do so, because when they do so they may correct that situation. I feel a lot of internal strength from having fought this battle. I feel that if people would take charge of situations that would normally be depressing and learn to look at it rationally and say I have this reason and that reason for dealing with this issue and that those reasons are important, and that despite the consequences I am going to pursue them, they won't become a victim of the entire process.

Q: You have done so much research on this subject over the last three or four years, what are you going to do when this case is done? Are you going to stay involved in some way, as a government watchdog or as something else?

A: I think that from seeing the impact on decisions of law, I would definitely be in a position to lobby for things regarding this issue. I won't say I have political aspirations, but I do feel in working with my representatives I have learned what decisions they can make and what restrictions are placed on them, and I would put myself in their shoes to say how I would do things differently. That interaction has made me more conscious of my feelings and my personal stake in this community.

Q: You have, I understand, volunteered to serve on the OHRCC board?

A: Yes, I feel that my experience having attended these meetings over a long period of time - I have almost as much time as most of those commissioners on that board. I have heard complaints from other people that have been forwarded that I don't think have been addressed appropriately, according to the charter, in which they were endowed. I feel that I would have a voice in that if I were a commissioner or even a director of that office.

Q: Have you requested to serve on that board?

A: I have forwarded that proposal to the legislators on several occasions. I have tried to request that directly that I be considered by (County Executive) Katheryn Shields, who appoints all these members, and I have gotten no response.

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