Independence Examiner, Saturday 11/23/02

OHRCC powers in writing

By James Dornbrook
The Examiner

Due to problems it had during a recent investigation, the Jackson County Office of Human Relations and Citizens Complaints has now put in writing a formal policy regarding the commission's subpoena powers.

The OHRCC is an independent body created under the County Charter, handling all citizen complaints about county actions or employees. Its members are appointed by the Jackson County executive but it operates under its own power.

The OHRCC always had the power to subpoena witnesses and documents. However, rules governing the use of these powers and penalties for noncompliance have never been put in writing, even though the commission has been around since 1973.

Commissioners began drafting the rules regarding subpoenas after its first public hearing was requested in 1999. This hearing was the result of a complaint by Bob WitbolsFeugen and Karen Turner.

The complaint involved the Sheriff's Department releasing the name of Turner's daughter, Peige, who was a witness during the investigation into the murder of WitbolsFeugen's daughter Anastasia.

Peige Turner called the Sheriff's Department to inform them she had heard classmates discussing involvement in the murder. According to Karen Turner, Sheriff's Deputy Gary Kilgore, the detective working the case, asked Peige to go back to these students and get more information. Karen Turner, upon hearing the request, allegedly called the Sheriff's Department on several occasions and told them not to involve Peige in the investigation, because it would place her in danger.

Despite these alleged requests, Kilgore admitted in testimony that he released Peige's name during his investigation. Karen Turner's complaint to the OHRCC was that Peige received death threats due to the actions of Kilgore.

It is noteworthy that the Sheriff's Department still considers the records of these phone calls between Kilgore and Turner to be secret, the public has no access to documents that could prove Turner asked Kilgore to keep Peige out of the investigation. Phillip Moran of the Sheriff's Department wrote WitbolsFeugen to inform him that the files would be closed as long as an appeal was underway in the case involving Byron Case, who was convicted of the murder of Anastasia WitbolsFeugen and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 1999, the OHRCC met in closed session to discuss the complaint against Kilgore. Despite being granted subpoena power under the County Charter, commissioners did not use it to hear testimony from Kilgore or search for documents such as the phone records. Commissioners then ruled, "That the totality of evidence presented was insufficient to support the Complaint Officer's determination that Ms. Turner's complaint is justified."

WitbolsFeugen and Turner filed a lawsuit stating that the commission illegally closed its meeting and its records to hide its deliberations. Circuit Court Judge Thomas Clark ruled that the meeting was closed illegally and issued fines totaling $500. Director Deborah Tircuit, Chairman Gregory Gerstner and Commissioner Michael Hunter were found guilty on four counts of intentionally violating the Missouri Sunshine law.

Although the closed meetings were declared illegal, the decision of the OHRCC regarding the Turner complaint stands to this day. This is despite the fact that Missouri law states decisions made in illegal closed meetings are invalid.

WitbolsFeugen asked the County Legislature to review the OHRCC decision regarding the case, since the charter grants legislators the power to do so. This request was made in July, and to date, legislators have not made a decision.

The Legislature did retain a lawyer more than a month ago to see what could be done about WitbolsFeugen's request. How ever, no open session discussion was ever held regarding what questions this lawyer would investigate or when a report would be issued.

To reach James Dornbrook e-mail or call (816) 350-6322.
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