Conflict grows over secret report to Missouri Gaming Commission

Missouri Gaming Commission Chairman Mike Leara, right, grimaces Feb. 24, 2021, as Commissioner Dan Finney criticizes spending $400,000 on an investigation of licensing decisions. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

Tension on the Missouri Gaming Commission between its longest serving member and Chairman Mike Leara continues to escalate, bubbling over this week over access to material gathered for a secret report on gambling license decisions.

Dan Finney, who was appointed in 2017, wants to see the full case file developed by Graves Garrett for the report delivered in January that cost $395,000. In a statement to The Independent, he said Leara is blocking his access to the file.

We paid the law firm almost $400,000 to perform legal services for the MGC,” said Finney, an attorney. “I felt obligated to review the work performed by the firm. I asked them for a copy of the legal file to review, and they would not provide me with one.”

Leara, in an interview on Wednesday, said he has not personally seen the file and wants access to it to be determined by the full commission.

“Not every commissioner can start making demands of the law firm, running up costs independently,” Leara said. “We make requests as a body, as a whole commission.”

The commission’s next scheduled meeting is March 31. 

“The commission is considering requesting the file,” Leara said. “We haven’t acted on that as of yet and it is likely that will occur. We are still reviewing the initial report.”

Graves Garrett was hired in April 2020 to serve “as Independent Counsel in investigating Missouri gaming license background investigations, processing and awards,” according to the engagement letter approved by the commission.

The engagement letter states that Nathan Garrett, a partner in the firm, would charge $495 an hour for his work and other lawyers and staff time would be charged at rates ranging from $195 to $405 an hour. 

The decision to hire Graves Garrett was made in closed session and the report was delivered to the commission in a January closed meeting. The commission has refused Sunshine Law requests from The Independent for the report and has refused legislative Democrats who asked for it during a committee meeting.

Commission General Counsel Ed Grewach, who reviewed the report, on Tuesday made a more detailed statement to The Independent of the legal reasons for keeping the report a closed record.

In addition to attorney-client privilege and legal work product, which has been cited previously, Grewach stated it is closed because it involves personnel records, contracts and records closed in the commission’s governing law as investigatory, proprietary and license application records.

The issue of Finney’s access to the legal file hinges on interpretations of the attorney-client privilege. When a board hires an attorney to handle its affairs, the privilege is between the board and the attorney, and access to work product is a question for the full board, said Jim Layton, who was the top civil appellate attorney for the Attorney General’s Office for most of his 22 years in state government.

If one member has access to the file, all should have the same access, Layton said. 

“The board could make a decision that the access to the material is restricted,” he said. “It would have to be the board acting as a body. If their client is the board they only need the permission of the board to let each member see the file.”

Finney wants to know who made allegations about the licensing process that prompted the report. At the commission’s Feb. 24 meeting, Finney complained that Leara would not reveal that person’s name and said if the person didn’t “come forward and tell me, they’re a coward.”

Finney has said the investigation looked at whether any commission employee altered or omitted material gathered by Missouri State Highway Patrol investigators employed to support licensing and security at the state’s 13 casinos.

On Wednesday, Leara said he is puzzled by Finney’s insistence on knowing the name.

“I find it odd that Mr. Finney has such a strong and immediate desire to know who the people were who brought forth concerns to the commission,” he said. “I don’t know why that is so critical to him.”

Leara is the one who raised the issue and it was on his statement of what he was told that the commission hired Graves Garrett, Finney has said. He has accused Leara of inventing it.

“As far as I can tell they are based on statements of an individual who doesn’t exist,” Finney said during the Feb. 24 meeting.