by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

I have to admire Gov. Matt Blunt’s courage in bucking conventional wisdom. Most people who find themselves stuck in a deep hole decide to stop digging. Instead, our governor says, “Hand me a bigger shovel.”

Blunt’s excavation project started when Tony Messenger, a former Tribune columnist, now an editor at the Springfield News-Leader, made a request for copies of e-mail correspondence between Blunt Chief of Staff Ed Martin and anti-abortion activists Martin enlisted in a campaign to prevent Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon from representing the state in a case regarding a new anti-abortion law. Although Messenger had a copy of one such e-mail, he was told related e-mails could not be provided because the governor’s staff does not save e-mails.

That’s already a pretty good size hole right there because the 2004 amendments to Missouri’s Sunshine Law specifically say that electronic records and correspondence are public records. Blunt spokesman Rich Chrismer took a turn at digging when he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch “there is no statute or case that requires the state to retain individuals’ e-mails as a public record.”

The governor took the shovel back and dug down a couple more feet by adding, “I think people are trying to have a clear and manageable inbox. That’s what they’re trying to do.”

Meanwhile, inside the hole – er, I mean the governor’s office – attorney Scott Eckersley reminded the governor and his chief of staff that the governor’s own e-mail retention policy and the Sunshine Law clearly said that e-mails are public records and should have been retained. Eckersley was suggesting that the governor stop digging, get out of the hole, admit mistakes were made and make the appropriate corrections to ensure that all public records in the governor’s office are retained as required by law.

But when you are making such great progress, why stop? And you definitely don’t want to have digging companions like Eckersley, who are not fully committed to digging all the way to China. So Chief of Staff Martin searched through Eckersley’s e-mail inbox for any justification that could be used to jettison the troublesome lawyer. He was pleased to find some e-mails from “group sex sites” that had been sent to Eckersley’s e-mail address. Never mind the fact that anyone with an e-mail account probably receives several such unsolicited spam e-mails every day of the week. The presence of the e-mails in the attorney’s inbox was sufficient cause for Martin to promptly fire Eckersley.

When questions started to be asked about the firing, the governor’s office sent packets of material to several newsrooms around the state with supposed documentation of Eckersley’s wrongdoings. Oddly, these same documents are being withheld from Eckersley, who for some bizarre reason is curious about why he was fired. When Eckersley put forth the idea that it was because he had reminded the governor and his staff – in several e-mails and meetings – that they were in violation of the law, the governor responded that Eckersley had “never once” sent any such e-mails. Of course, those e-mails are now surfacing.

It’s like the governor is using a steam shovel to make faster progress.

Those of us standing around watching the governor’s excavation are starting to wonder a few things, such as: Where is the attorney general? As the state’s chief law enforcement officer, you’d think he would have a few things to say about such an obvious violation of the state’s Open Meetings and Records Law. Although he might think pursuing legal action against the governor could damage his own campaign for governor in 2008, he needs to remember his current paycheck from the people of Missouri is for his service as attorney general, not as a gubernatorial candidate.

One also wonders: Where are the leaders of the General Assembly? This legislative body passed the updated Sunshine Law in 2004. Don’t they care that it is being ignored? Granted, the Senate and House leadership share the same political party as the governor, but does that mean they are willing to turn a blind eye to violations of the laws they pass? We citizens might start to wonder why the Missouri General Assembly would pass laws if its members don’t care whether they are followed. What laws can we break without having to worry about punishment or questioning?

Anyone who has dug a deep hole knows there is always a danger the sides will collapse and you’ll be buried alive. I hope the governor reconsiders his project and comes back to the surface before it is too late.