Democrats on the House Budget Committee are pushing the Missouri Gaming Commission to release a report on licensing investigations that cost $395,000.
During a hearing Thursday on the commission’s budget for the coming year, State Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, asked for details about the report delivered to the commission in January by the Kansas City law firm Graves Garrett.
She was told that only commissioners have seen it.
“Can we have a copy of that report?” Unsicker asked.
“We do not have a copy of it,” Deputy Director Tim McGrail said. “The commissioners have it at this time. We, as far as the commission staff, have not seen that and at this time it is viewed as a closed record.”
Graves Garrett, a Kansas City law firm run by some of the state’s most well-connected Republicans, was hired to conduct the inquiry during an April 17, 2020, closed meeting of the commission.
The money used for the study would, if it had not been spent, been used to support nursing homes operated by the Missouri Veterans Commission. Transfers from gaming commission administrative funds to support veterans programs fell by $10.2 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, mainly because casinos were closed for almost three months by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We anticipated to receive about $18 million that year, so that was a significant and very impactful reduction to our revenue support,” Terressa Sherlock, fiscal director for the veterans commission, told the budget committee Thursday.
The only information about the scope of the work released publicly is the three-page engagement letter, written by attorney Nathan Garrett. It stated the firm would serve “as Independent Counsel in investigating Missouri gaming license background investigations, processing and awards.”
The commission has declined Sunshine Law requests from The Independent for a copy of the report, citing attorney-client privilege.
During the hearing, Unsicker pressed McGrail to justify keeping the report secret.
“Our general counsel and outside counsel that we’ve asked to look at that, as far as the Attorney General’s office, they’ve made that determination and advised our chairman that it fits under a closed record,” McGrail said.
The Independent requested documentation of that advice from Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Gaming Commission General Counsel Ed Grewach. Schmitt’s office acknowledged the request but has not otherwise responded. Grewach has not responded.
Sunshine Law attorneys interviewed by the Independent have questioned the decision to withhold the entire report.
By contracting with a law firm, instead of a management consultant, the commission followed in the footsteps of the veterans commission.
The veterans commission hired Armstrong-Teasdale to investigate conditions in its nursing homes that led to widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 that killed more than 100 residents. The commission released a 50-page summary in early December but claimed the full report was exempt from disclosure because of attorney-client privilege.
Schmitt disagreed with the commission’s decision to withhold the full report, which was released at the end of December.
In an interview Friday, Unsicker said she isn’t the only Democratic member of the committee concerned about the cost and that the commission hired Graves Garrett without a bidding process. She said she hasn’t talked to many of the majority Republicans on the committee but believes many would like to see the report as well.
During the hearing, McGrail cited a law that the commission believes exempts it from state purchasing rules and a 1980 opinion from the Attorney General’s Office states that no state agency has to seek proposals before hiring private attorneys.
“There needs to be transparency in that process,” Unsicker said.
She also said she was surprised that no staff at the commission have seen the report.
“I think if they are going to commission a report like that they need to do something with the information contained in it,” she said.
The gaming commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 24. When pressed for the report, McGrail said he would ask the commission to consider it.
“I would be happy to share this information with the commission and will make every effort to try to get a response back from them,” he said.
If the commission refuses, Unsicker said, she is uncertain about the next step.
“I don’t know what the recourse is at this point,” she said, “but we are the budget committee and I hope we could do something with the budget.”