Democrats on the House Budgets Committee urge the Missouri Gaming Commission to release a license investigation report that costs $ 395,000.
During a Thursday hearing on the commission’s budget for the coming year, Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, asked for details on the report that the Kansas City law firm Graves Garrett had submitted to the commission in January.
She was told only commissioners saw it.
“Can we have a copy of this report?” Unsicker asked.
“We don’t have a copy of it,” said assistant director Tim McGrail. “The Commissioners have it at this point. We, as far as the Commission staff are concerned, have not seen this and at this point it is considered a closed record.”
Graves Garrett was hired to conduct the investigation during a closed committee meeting on April 17, 2020.
The money used on the study, if not spent, would have been used to support nursing homes operated by the Missouri Veterans Commission. Gambling Commission’s administrative fund transfers to support veterans programs decreased by $ 10.2 million for the fiscal year ended June 30, mainly because casinos were closed for nearly three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We expected to receive approximately $ 18 million this year, which is a significant and very effective reduction in our revenue support,” Terressa Sherlock, finance director for the Veterans Commission, told the Budget Committee on Thursday.
The only information about the scope of the publicly published work is the three-page engagement letter from attorney Nathan Garrett. The company will act “as an independent attorney in investigating the background investigation, processing and issuing of Missouri gambling licenses.”
The commission has denied Sunshine Law’s requests from the Missouri Independent for a copy of the report, citing legal and client law.
During the hearing, Unsicker pressed McGrail to justify keeping the report confidential.
“Our General Counsel and our outside attorney whom we asked to look into, as far as the Attorney General was concerned, made this decision and advised our Chairman that it would fit under closed protocol,” said McGrail.
The Missouri Independent has asked Attorney General Eric Schmitt and the Gaming Commission General Counsel Ed Grewach to document this advice. Schmitt’s office confirmed the request but did not respond differently. Grewach did not answer.
Sunshine Law attorneys interviewed by the Missouri Independent have questioned the decision to withhold the entire report.
By contracting a law firm rather than a business consultant, the commission followed in the footsteps of the Veterans Commission.
The Veterans Commission hired Armstrong-Teasdale to investigate the conditions in their nursing homes that led to widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 that killed more than 100 residents. The commission released a 50-page executive summary in early December but claimed the full report was exempt from disclosure due to the privilege of the attorney and client.
Schmitt contested the Commission’s decision to withhold the full report published in late December.
In an interview on Friday, Unsicker said she was not the only Democratic member of the committee concerned about the cost and that the commission hired Graves Garrett without tendering. She said she had not spoken to many of the majority of Republicans on the committee, but believed many would like to see the report too.
During the hearing, McGrail cited a bill the Commission believes exempted from state purchasing rules and a 1980 statement by the Attorney General that no state agency is required to seek proposals before hiring private lawyers.
“There must be transparency in this process,” said Unsicker.
She also said she was surprised that no Commission staff member saw the report.
“I think if you want to commission such a report, you have to do something with the information in it,” she said.
The next meeting of the Gambling Commission is scheduled for Wednesday. When pushed for the report, McGrail said he would ask the commission to consider it.
“I would like to pass this information on to the Commission and try to get a response from them,” he said.
If the commission refuses, Unsicker said, it would not be sure about the next step.
“I don’t know what is going on right now,” she said, “but we are the Committee on Budgets and I hope we can do something with the budget.”
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