Camden County attorney Charles McElyea suspended Sunshine Law in the Camden Courthouse on Tuesday. Public files containing billing statements from McElyea for the year 2013 were being reviewed by citizens Theresa Townsend and Leslie Chamberlin after a meeting of the Camden County Commission. These statements, bills and invoices were snatched out of their hands by Camden County Clerk Rowland Todd, who began bellowing threats of a law suit.
What has unfolded in the wake of McElyea’s single-handed suspension of Sunshine Law is a study in denials, deflection and deception.
This string of ‘justifications’ for breaking the law and suspending Sunshine law however, have questionable merit or standing according to state statutes. The statute regarding the Sunshine Law is incredibly clear in this regard. Its intent is simple.
It makes it a crime to conceal public records from the public. There are no asterisks, no exceptions, to this statute.
It is in place to ensure that those working as public representatives are held to a standard of accountability and transparency. This is a standard the Camden County attorney has decided does not and should not apply to his billing records.
McElyea was so determined to hide his billing records, that it led him to issue the threat of a lawsuit in addition to convincing Rowland Todd to aid him in breaking the law by refusing access to records that had already been turned over by Todd’s office as a result of an official Sunshine request.
McElyea didn’t stop there. He contacted Leslie Chamberlin at home regarding the documents, attempting to convince her not to release them to the public. A phone call was also placed to the Missouri State Attorney General’s office, by McElyea, in an attempt to explain and clarify his breaking of the law and suspension of Sunshine Law.
The determined effort to hide both his billing and subsequent crime speaks to the seriousness of McElyea’s actions.
Missouri State Statutes speak to the consequences McElyea faces resulting from his unilateral attempt to rewrite law.
A week prior to McElyea’s breaking of the Sunshine Law, a request had been made of the County Clerk’s office via telephone by Theresa Townsend. During this call, she made it clear that she wanted to see the 2013 billing file for Camden County attorney Charles McElyea.
The clerk’s office was gracious and helpful. Theresa was told at that time that the file was in use for an audit, but she could view it as soon as it had been returned.
After confirming the availability of the file with the Clerk’s office, Theresa and Leslie set an appointment to view the file following the meeting of the Camden County Commission on Tuesday, March 18.
When they arrived, they found the billing file had been pulled and was ready for them. Theresa filled out the proper and appropriate paperwork for her Sunshine Law request. This request was accepted by the Clerk’s office and Theresa was granted access to the information she had requested. After approximately thirty to forty-five minutes, the review was abruptly terminated.
At that time, Rowland Todd began bellowing and frantically scooping up the records that had been provided for viewing under a Sunshine Law request. He shouted threats of a law suit as he aided in suspending Sunshine Law.
The billing file, containing invoices and billing statements approved for payment by the Camden County Commission, was taken from the ladies. They left the office under a hail of law suit accusations, which Todd continued to spout while Theresa and Leslie left the clerk’s office.
BREAKING THE LAW
The Sunshine Law is one of the most important laws on our books. It provides for oversight, accountability and transparency between government and the citizens who fund it. Under it, records, documents, meeting minutes, emails, etc are available to the public for review. The clear intent of the Sunshine Law is to prohibit government officials, staff members and attorneys from concealing the actions of government from the public.
It was Charles McElyea’s clear intent to restrict, conceal and hide his billing records from the citizens of Camden County. There are no games of semantics, no legal ‘justifications’, that can be offered to dispute his clear intent.
Charlie Mac didn’t want anyone to see his billing records. To do this, he wiped himself with the Sunshine Law and the Constitutions of both the United States and the State of Missouri. In a move worthy of any third world totalitarian regime, McElyea unilaterally declared himself dictator and suspended the rule of law.
Missouri Revised Statutes, Chapter 109 Public and Business Records, Section 109.180, is one of those pesky little statutes, whose intent is to make sure that no one, under any legal interpretation, can prohibit the viewing of public documents subject to an approved Sunshine request. It is quite clear about that. In fact, it is so specific that it comes with a detailed punishment, to remind that no one can suspend, rewrite or reinterpret the Sunshine Law itself.
That would include Charlie Mac, despite his reasoning to the contrary.
109.180. Except as otherwise provided by law, all state, county and municipal records kept pursuant to statute or ordinance shall at all reasonable times be open for a personal inspection by any citizen of Missouri, and those in charge of the records shall not refuse the privilege to any citizen. Any official who violates the provisions of this section shall be subject to removal or impeachment and in addition shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine not exceeding one hundred dollars, or by confinement in the county jail not exceeding ninety days, or by both the fine and the confinement.
The last section does not include an exception for Charles McElyea, Rowland Todd or Camden County. It appears to be quite specific. The last sentence is worth repeating:
Any official who violates the provisions of this section shall be subject to removal or impeachment and in addition shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine not exceeding one hundred dollars, or by confinement in the county jail not exceeding ninety days, or by both the fine and the confinement.
It is punishment for those who would assume to block the public from records they are entitled to have access to. It was written with the intent of prohibiting ANYONE from violating the Sunshine Law. This includes both Rowland and Charlie Mac.
Whether the reason for this incredible overreaching claim of authority is that Charlie Mac doesn’t want the taxpayers of Camden County to know he charges $82.50 to open an email or simple audacity, it is not relevant according to the statute above. It clearly identifies the consequences for violating it.
Charlie Mac, despite his assertions to the contrary, is not exempt from it. Neither is Camden County Clerk Rowland Todd.
Attempting in the eleventh hour, to hide his billing records, indicates a desperation worthy of risking the prescribed remedy for his actions. Jail, fines and impeachment.
What would Charlie Mac be so willing to go to jail for? Why would Rowland Todd be willing to go with him?
These are only two of the many questions raised by the actions of Camden County attorney Charlie McElyea and Camden County Clerk Rowland Todd.
Later that afternoon, shortly after breaking the law, McElyea phoned Leslie Chamberlin. His phone call was prompted by the following post, first appearing on the Guerrilla Radio with American Spring Facebook page:
Camden County Clerk Rowland Todd, by denying access to public records subject to Sunshine Law on the advice of county attorney Charles McElyea, appears to have committed a misdemeanor offense.
More to come…
Charlie Mac then attempted to explain to Leslie how he was justified, legally, to rewrite the Sunshine Law with the goal of hiding his billing. He offered her his interpretations of statutes and cited attorney/client privilege as reasons the documents shouldn’t be released to the public.
Leslie Chamberlin, Citizens for a Better Camden County:
Charles McElyea attempted to use Missouri Revised Statute Chapter 610 Section 610.021 Paragraph 1 as his method of closing the records of the billing of his firm to Camden County, Missouri to the public. It states in said paragraph directly that the ‘amounts of any moneys paid by, or on behalf of, the public governmental body shall be disclosed’.
A bill or statement of charges is the summary of said moneys to be paid for services rendered. It would be up to the attorney’s office to not disclose any confidential or damning information in something as simple as a bill. Billing and accounts payable information are documents that are often a part of a Sunshine request when a citizen is researching how their tax dollars are spent.
This paragraph does allow for the governmental bodies to keep confident the details of a particular case while it is pending. It also protects ‘legal product’. A bill is not a legal work product. Legal work products are items, tangible and intangible, that are prepared by or on behalf of an attorney in order to process a case.
McElyea also, curiously, gave Leslie a particular ‘example’ as another ‘excuse’ for his actions.
During my phone call with Charles McElyea, he indicated to me that I had a moral obligation to not publicize the photos of the bills as I may do harm to an employee of the county that may be listed in that bill.
He used fake employee ‘John Smith’ as an example. If ‘John Smith’ was discussed with the attorney and therefore was on the billing but had done nothing wrong, the public may view ‘John Smith’ in a negative manner because he was discussed with an attorney.
It is a shame this legal ‘advice’ about protecting character wasn’t communicated throughout the Camden County Courthouse during the election of Second District Camden County Commissioner Cliff Luber, when an anonymous campaign was launched against him, its genesis in the County Courthouse.
Leslie went on:
Charlie also suggested that I had a moral obligation to not publicize the photos as it may harm the county in a pending lawsuit.
How could a bill submitted to public officials for payment of legal services open the county to potential liability? If such a thing were true, what did the county do wrong that they would wish to stay hidden?
McElyea offered these examples and statutes as rationale to explain how he could claim authority to suspend the Sunshine Law. Unfortunately for Camden County, its Commission and the taxpayers, attorney Charles McElyea seems to be giving questionable legal advice.
COVER-UP EXTENDS TO ATTORNEY GENERAL OFFICE
Casey Lawrence, representative for the office of the Attorney General, contacted Theresa Townsend on Thursday, March 20. This was two days after McElyea broke the Sunshine Law, issued threats and offered excuses and flawed rationale as justification for this plainly unlawful act.
During that phone call, Ms. Lawrence, already inquiring about Sunshine violations regarding the Camden County Commission and Planning and Zoning, relayed a conversation she had earlier that morning.
According to Ms. Lawrence, she had received a phone call from a female regarding the threats issued by Rowland Todd, generated by Charlie Mac. Ms. Lawrence stated that the caller, a female, contacted her to ‘clarify’ the threats that were issued by the Camden County Clerk and attorney.
Lawrence stated that, according to the female caller (presumably, a staff member in Rowland Todd’s office, who would have witnessed the threat) phoned her office to state that no threats, at anytime, were issued against Theresa Townsend and Leslie Chamberlin.
Instead the female caller said something unbelievable to Ms. Lawrence.
The caller appears to have said it was the county, not citizens, that was the target of the threat issued by McElyea. It was directed at the county who has paid McElyea hundreds of thousands of dollars for legal services.
This assertion prompted Theresa Townsend to send the following email to the Camden County Commission regarding this clear violation of the law. It was sent as a result of her conversation with Casey Lawrence of the Missouri State Attorney General’s Office.
This inquiry, reprinted below, was sent to the Camden County Commission.
Camden County Commissioners:
I was contacted today by a representative from the State Attorney Generals office and was advised that Charles Mcelyea, Camden County Attorney did not threaten ME with a lawsuit, he instead threatened the COUNTY with a lawsuit. I would think in light of this information, his continued employment as County Attorney would be a conflict of interest.
I look forward to your timely attention to this very serious matter…
McElyea, perhaps realizing the gravity of the cover-up he was haphazardly patching together, sent Theresa Townsend an email response that, essentially called her, Ms. Lawrence, the undisclosed caller and Leslie Chamberlin, liars.
This email was sent Friday, in response to Theresa’s inquiry to the County Commission regarding the threat of a lawsuit. Here, in another of what appears to be an endless stream of denials, he attempts to refute the statement of the Attorney General’s office. He claims that the county was not the party he threatened.
Theresa: Your email to the County Commission has been shared with me. I did speak to an Assistant Attorney General yesterday on behalf of the County and did not at any time threaten to sue the County. One of my jobs in representing the County is to advise the County Commission and office holders on ways not to get sued. Chs.
Charles E. McElyea
Phillips, McElyea, Carpenter and Welch, P.C.
85 Court Circle, NW
P.O. Box 559
Camdenton, MO 65020
This email, another in a shifting strategy to justify his breaking of the Sunshine Law, would seem to indicate that McElyea is now attempting to build the foundation for his argument around the ‘exposure’ the county would endure were his billing records made public. This is the equivalent of building a home on quicksand. The ground is shifting under Charlie’s feet with each new denial.
Theresa, seeking further clarification, sent the following email to Casey Lawrence:
Ms. Lawrence, you contacted me yesterday via telephone and advised me that Charles Mcelyea had threatened the COUNTY, not myself. Can you explain how you knew this had occurred? Mr. Mcelyea has contacted me through e-mail this morning stating he did not threaten the county. He either threatened me or he threatened the county, either way, this is a serious issue. I look forward to your prompt response.
Theresa L. Townsend
It is perhaps this latest denial, issued to Theresa Townsend, on Friday, March 21, that speaks most directly to his competence as an attorney.
In it, McElyea states that:
One of my jobs in representing the County is to advise the County Commission and office holders on ways not to get sued.
Here, McElyea makes the most damning of statements regarding his competence as County attorney. He clearly states that his suspension of the Sunshine Law was to protect the County from facing liability.
His ‘legal advice’, distilled into its pure form, is this:
If people were to look into McElyea’s billing statements, they might find information in them that would expose the County to liability. Simply put, the County lawyer doesn’t appear to have enough legal savvy to keep sensitive, damaging information from appearing in billing statements subject to Sunshine Law requests.
If this is the kind of legal counsel our Commission and County is relying on, then Camden County potentially faces exposure far beyond whatever may be contained in McElyea’s billing records.
It seems that this is the type of law ‘practice’ McElyea has been engaged in for some time. He attempted to suspend Sunshine Law before. Because of this previous attempt to reinterpret law to his liking, McElyea was made aware of the ramifications of violating the Sunshine Law. Clearly, Charlie Mac didn’t learn his lesson.
This account is from Sherry Lagares, who encountered the same tactics, employed by McElyea, a few years ago.
During a period of discovery to aid in the defense of a Law Suit, I went to the court house to view and copy public records. Over the course of discovery and my viewing of public records, I was barred from the court house and all public records.
My discovery led to more and more suspicious activity by the county officials, the county attorney and other individuals. One particular year of records must have hit a nerve, As I sat quietly awaiting the next set of documents to view, something strange happened.
I waited and waited for the documents, but they did not come. What did come was Rowland Todd. Todd called me into his office, shut the door and told me, I was not allowed to look at any more public records. Todd said that he had talked to Charles McElyea. And I was barred from the court and all court house records, if I had any questions, to take it up with Charlie.
I presented him with the state statute that allowed access to the court house and records and he again said take it up with Charlie. I had already communicated with the Missouri Attorney Generals office to clarify my rights, and laws applicable to accessing the court house and public records.
Immediately after being barred, I again placed a call to the Attorney Generals office. The AG office said to have the County Attorney call them if he had questions regarding the Sunshine Law and Missouri statute. They instructed me to give him a copy of the statute. The AG Attorney gave me his contact information to give to Charlie, for him to seek clarification of my rights and the ramifications for any one blocking or infringing on those rights as a Citizen of Missouri and the County.
I went to his office and asked to see him. I was immediately allowed to visit with him. It was a civil conversation. I presented him with a copy of the State Statue and the AG Attorneys name and contact information. Charlie became very agitated with me and said, He did not need clarification or to contact the AG office. He immediately granted me access back into the court house and access to whatever record I wanted to see.
Upon returning to the viewing session at Todd’s office, numbered pages were now missing from the public records. I questioned the staff, because Todd was gone from his office, about the missing pages, and they simply could not give one logical reasoning for the missing pages.
It appears Charles McElyea and Rowland Todd have established a history…
For more on this story, check out ‘Camden-Gate: The Chicken Little Argument’, available in Monday’s edition of ‘Morning Toast’, from American Spring. Follow http://www.americanspring2011.com, on Twitter @AmericanSpring and on Facebook at Guerrilla Radio with American Spring for the latest news. Coverage they cannot and will not give you anywhere else…