TARGET 8: Planned Parenthood emails uncover lack of transparency
JEFFERSON CITY - KOMU 8 News set out to examine emails between lawmakers and the University of Missouri on the school's relationship with Planned Parenthood.
As Planned Parenthood came under fire nationwide over its policies on harvesting fetal tissue, Missouri Republican legislators formed the Senate Interim Committee on the Sanctity of Life to investigate Planned Parenthood clinics in Missouri.
Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia), chairman of the committee, sent correspondence to MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin requesting documents regarding the University of Missouri System's ties with several Planned Parenthood clinics around the Midwest.
To obtain emails between Loftin and Schaefer, KOMU 8 News sent identical open records requests to the University of Missouri System and Senate Administrator Marga Hoelscher. The UM System fulfilled the request; however, Hoelscher did not. Her denial was as follows:
“Emails to and from Senators are records maintained by individual Senators. Please be advised the Missouri Senate, as a public governmental body, does not retain such records thus, these records are not included. Individual Senators are not a "public governmental body" under section 610.010(4), RSMo, and therefore not subject to the Missouri Sunshine Law.”
That statute defines a “public governmental body” as “any legislative, administrative or governmental entity created by the constitution or statutes of this state, by order or ordinance of any political subdivision or district, judicial entities when operating in an administrative capacity, or by executive order.”
KOMU 8 News then requested emails to and from Schaefer and Rep. Andrew Koenig (R-Manchester), chairman of the Ways and Means committee. David Welch, counsel to the House, denied the request for a similar reason.
"Members are not a governmental body, and emails are not a public record," Welch said.
According to Missouri law, "the term 'public record' shall not include any internal memorandum or letter received or prepared by or on behalf of a member of a public governmental body consisting of advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body, unless such records are retained by the public governmental body or presented at a public meeting."
Welch said giving advice, opinions and recommendations is what representatives and senators do in their emails.
"I think that members - senators, representatives - have to be able to communicate a) with their staff and b) and, probably more importantly, with their constituents," Welch said. "And those constituents have to feel that they can communicate without reading what they communicate in the newspaper. They have to be able to ask their state representative about issues that are important to them."
More questions about retention
Several weeks ago, the Senate administrator denied a Sunshine request from KOMU 8 News for Schaefer's emails. The station then requested emails directly from Schaefer, who forwarded the request back to the Senate administrator, where it was again denied.
On Thursday, the day this story aired on television, Schaefer turned over his emails to KOMU 8 News. Schaefer said it was a mistake that KOMU 8 News did not receive the emails earlier.
"I think we've been pretty transparent on everything," Schaefer said.
After going through the emails sent by Schaefer's assistant, KOMU 8 News realized the emails the university sent did not match the emails that came from Schaefer.
UM Custodian of Records Paula Barrett told KOMU 8 News she could not explain the discrepancies, but she said it could have been because Loftin deleted some of his emails.
She said IT employees would have to investigate, but that could not happen immediately.
How can the public keep its elected officials accountable if it does not have access to their emails?
"It's important that the officials we elect are the officials that are carrying out the agendas that are similar with our beliefs and values," said Lara Dieringer, administrative manager of the National Freedom Of Information Coalition.
Dieringer stressed the importance of accountability.
"I don't think I could trust somebody and vote for somebody if I knew that I couldn't hold them accountable," she said.
A national controversy over emails has surrounded Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for months.
And Dieringer said public officials not disclosing emails has been a trend recently. She said she sees a number of reasons why agencies may not disclose emails.
"Some of it is that the agency doesn't have proper policies in effect. Some of it is the mixture of personal and private email. Some agencies don't have a policy where you are restricted to using your work email. And so it becomes cumbersome for the individual to have to go through and search all of their emails. They don't have to give out their private emails," Dieringer said.
Another problem she's seen is that sometimes public officials are able to pick and choose which emails they send out and, more importantly, which ones they don't.
"There can be cases when it is recipient-selected, meaning if somebody asked you for your emails and you went through and you got to select which emails," Dieringer said. "That's not really how it should work. But we do see that."
Above all else, this is a matter of transparency, she said.
"Transparency is important for trust. So we advocate transparency at the local government and state government. It's important for trust. It's important to trust those elected officials and trust those in authority," Dieringer said.
Welch said matters at the Capitol are very transparent to the public.
"Here in Missouri we have a very open government. A lot of transparency. Things are shown. The meetings are open, and the legislators, I think, are very willing to talk with the press and meet with the press and make them aware of what's going on," Welch said.
Contents of the emails
KOMU 8 News obtained more than 500 pages of emails and attached documents between Loftin and Schaefer about Planned Parenthood from the university system.
The emails revealed Schaefer's demand for documents, including emails, between Planned Parenthood and any University of Missouri entity.
The emails started between the two officials on Aug. 17 when Schaefer sent a correspondence to Loftin requesting agreements and other documents between the University of Missouri system and Colleen McNicholas, a doctor who previously had privileges at University Hospital.
Schaefer expressed concern that public funds were being used toward abortions.
The note said: "For decades the citizens of the state of Missouri have gone to great lengths to ensure that their taxpayer dollars never enable abortion services in this state. The University of Missouri system is a publicly funded entity which last year alone received approximately one half of one billion taxpayer dollars from the State of Missouri. Whether DHSS is relying on the agreement granted by the University, as a publicly funded entity, to Dr. McNicholas in order to enable the abortion license issuance is a matter of substantial public interest and concern."
Under Missouri Revised Statutes Section 188.205, it is against the law for public funds to be used in performing or assisting in an abortion unless the mother's life is at stake.
Schaefer told KOMU 8 News this is a law enforcement issue, as the University of Missouri receives billions of dollars from the state.
"The University is not above the law," Schaefer said. "They do not need to be in the abortion business."
Loftin responded to Schaefer, saying physicians can apply for different levels of privileges at MU Health Care facilities. He said that is what McNicholas did, and MU Health Care granted her "refer and follow" privileges on Dec. 15, 2014.
"Refer and follow" privileges only allow doctors to refer patients to hospital and look at their medical records.
In his reply, Loftin said public funds were not going toward abortions because McNicholas was not a university employee.
Instead, McNicholas is employed by Washington University in St. Louis.
Schaefer requested more documents on Aug. 19, telling Loftin the request was because of the Sanctity of Life committee's constitutionally authorized investigation. He said he would go to whatever lengths necessary to get all documents he requested.
"If documents responsive to the requests in this letter are not produced for any reason, it is incumbent on the University to so inform the Committee so that we may evaluate further enforcement options, including the issuance of subpoenas compelling the production of documents and testimony pursuant to Section 21.400, RSMo," Schaefer said.
The officials exchanged a few more correspondences, and Loftin included hundreds of pages of attachments. Those documents included MU/Planned Parenthood contracts that were terminated starting on Aug. 21, just a few days after Schaefer's original request to Loftin. Prior to the documents' cancellation, MU had contracts with various Planned Parenthood clinics around the country, such as South Palm Beach, Florida; Fayetteville, Arkansas; and St. Louis.
These contracts were used to allow students in the schools of social work, medicine and nursing to gain clinical experience in Planned Parenthood facilities.
By the time Schaefer called Loftin in to testify before the Sanctity of Life committee on Aug. 25, Loftin said the university had canceled every contract except the one with the School of Social Work.
"I went to every single program and said, 'do you need this particular program?' And the answer in every case but one was 'No,'" Loftin said at the committee hearing.
At that meeting, Schaefer was outraged by the University of Missouri's involvement with Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.
"Why is it acceptable that a publicly-funded institution like the University of Missouri be engaged in this activity when 188.205 specifically says that no public funds may be expended on - expended on such activity?" Schaefer said at the hearing.
Schaefer was not the only senator to express concerns about MU's ties to Planned Parenthood at the hearing.
"This appearing to bend over backwards on the part of the university to accommodate an abortion clinic in Columbia when, when Missouri law is very clear on this subject, I think is really egregious," Sen. Bob Onder (R-Lake St. Louis) said.
Schaefer cited documents between McNicholas and Kristin Metcalf-Wilson, an MU professor and Planned Parenthood employee, from 2014.
"There's a whole lot of detail helping Dr. McNicholas get those credentials after it appears she was actually recruited by a professor of the University of Missouri who also works at Planned Parenthood specifically to resume abortions in Columbia," Schaefer said.
He argued the idea of using public funds for abortion services could be traced to emails between McNicholas and Metcalf-Wilson, because Metcalf-Wilson was using her university email account while she was at work for the university while she was "recruiting" McNicholas.
The documents KOMU 8 News obtained included background history on McNicholas, including her resume and documentation of her privileges with MU Health Care.
According to an email McNicholas sent to Bert Bachrach, director of the Child Health Diabetes and Endocrinology division of the MU School of Medicine, McNicholas currently provides services twice a month at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Columbia.
On Sept. 24, MU announced it had ended its "refer and follow" privileges with McNicholas, effective Dec. 1. Following the announced resignation of Loftin on Nov. 9, Planned Parenthood released a statement urging him to reinstate those privileges before he stepped down from his position.
Schaefer at one point asked Loftin about payments from MU to Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.
Loftin's response was, "We did separately search for other payments to Planned Parenthood from the MU campus. From 2001 to 2006, we identified a total of eight payments in amounts ranging from $25.00 to $120.75. Those payments were for printed materials and registration fees. More recently, there was one $92.58 payment in 2012 for resource brochures.”
When asked if he thinks public funding is going toward abortion services, Schaefer replied, "I think absolutely they are using public dollars."
"MU has a lot of problems," Schaefer said. "A lot of them are coming to light nationally."
The next Senate Interim Committee on the Sanctity of Life hearing is predicted to happen during the first week of December.
(Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include the latest information.)