The Kansas City Star seeks to intervene in Independence suit, unseal mayor’s deposition

·7 min read

The Kansas City Star has asked to intervene in a civil lawsuit in Independence for the purpose of unsealing the sworn testimony of Mayor Eileen Weir.

The Star filed a motion in Jackson County Circuit Court on Tuesday asking Judge Kenneth Garrett III to reverse a previous protective order sealing Weir’s deposition.

In its motion, The Star argues that Weir failed to show any legal cause for sealing her deposition and says its closure is a violation of First Amendment protections.

Greg Farmer, The Star’s managing editor, said the mayor’s testimony in the case is “of urgent public importance.”

“She works for the people and is accountable to them,” Farmer said. “The Star is committed to ensuring Independence voters, past and future, know what’s happening in their city. We hope the judge in this case will reconsider his decision to seal her deposition and insist that transparency prevails.”

Missouri court rules say individuals may seek protective orders “for good cause shown.”

The Star argues that Weir included no justification, but only referenced the fact that she was the mayor and that third parties were seeking copies of her deposition transcript.

“Thus, under the mayor’s logic, her transcript should be sealed for no reason other than she is the Mayor and someone has asked to see her deposition,” the motion reads. “But the Mayor is not the Queen—she does not control her subjects.”

Weir answered questions under oath as part of a defamation lawsuit against the city and two council members. The suit stems from comments that two council members made in a Star story in March 2020. At that time, the city had received a proposal from a collection of businesses led by Titan Fish Partners LLC to repurpose its Blue Valley Municipal Power Generating Plant into a biofuels production facility.

Councilwoman Karen DeLuccie and then-Councilman Scott Roberson told The Star they had no interest in doing business with Titan Fish, which is led by Kansas investor Joe Campbell. Also included in the proposal was Steve Tilley, a Missouri statehouse lobbyist and former Missouri House speaker who is a longtime friend and adviser to Gov. Mike Parson. Both have histories of controversy in Independence.

By the spring of 2020, FBI agents had questioned three Independence council members and a handful of lawmakers, lobbyists and statehouse staff in Jefferson City. Agents were reportedly asking questions about Missouri’s new medical marijuana program and which businesses won licenses, and controversial decisions regarding Independence utility properties — including projects Campbell was involved in.

“I would not even consider a bid from them,” Roberson said at the time. “Not even consider it.”

In June 2020, Joe Campbell and Titan Fish sued the city, DeLuccie and Roberson for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and claims that the public comments damaged the company’s prospects for a financially beneficial deal with the city.

The city has contested the claims and is seeking a summary judgment, in which a judge enters a finding without a full trial.

Earlier this month, the Independence City Council rejected a proposed settlement agreement with Titan Fish. The company said it would drop its case if the city handed over the Blue Valley plant to Titan Fish and provided a tax abatement on the property.

While Campbell has indicated he may add more parties to his suit, Weir is not currently a defendant.

The mayor’s lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

The Star is not a party in the case, but the Missouri Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the media has a legal interest in cases when opposing efforts to close or seal records or courtrooms.

Depositions are not always matters of public record. They are common tools used in courts to interview plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses. Lawyers generally maintain custody of deposition transcripts. If they are entered as exhibits or evidence, those transcripts are then generally considered public records.

Even when they are not entered into the court record, reporters often obtain depositions from sources to shed light on stories. The current protective order prohibits The Star or any other media outlet from obtaining copies of Weir’s testimony.

To date, only one deposition has been completed. Weir gave her testimony on November 10.

In its motion, The Star contends that the protective order is an unconstitutional violation of First Amendment protections. Bernie Rhodes, the newspaper’s attorney, argues that the public has an interest in the testimony of Weir, particularly given the FBI investigation into utility contracts in Independence.

The Star also argues that Weir’s position as an elected official outweighs any privacy concerns.

“She is the elected Mayor, and the information she holds relative to the claims in this lawsuit comes from her holding that position,” the motion reads. “As such, the public has a compelling interest in answering: ‘What did the Mayor know and when did she know it?’”

One of the city’s most controversial projects during Weir’s tenure was the demolition of a power plant in Missouri City that Independence Power and Light was no longer using.

The Independence City Council in 2017 awarded Environmental Operations, a St. Louis company, a $9.75 million bid to tear down the plant. That was more than twice the amount in a bid from a competing firm.

Environmental Operations is owned by Stacy Hastie, a well connected player in Missouri politics. His general counsel is John Diehl, a former Missouri House speaker who resigned in 2015 after The Star revealed his relationship with a 19-year-old legislative intern.

Campbell said he was involved in that project through a consulting contract he had with Environmental Operators.

Also in 2017, the city council voted to purchase the former Rockwood Golf Club for nearly $1 million. That decision came just months after Titan Fish purchased the property for $550,000 from a company that had owned the closed golf course for several years.

Just days before voting to buy the site in executive session, Weir received more than $10,000 from political action committees funded by the company that would go on to operate the project.

In its motion, The Star also points out that Weir is running for reelection.

“Mayor Weir’s effort to prevent the citizens of Independence from reading her deposition while actively campaigning for office is antithetical to the very idea of a free and fair election,” The Star’s motion reads.

In addition to Weir, Titan Fish is seeking depositions from City Manager Zach Walker, DeLuccie and Roberson. Campbell answered questions in a partial deposition on November 12 and was expected to complete it a later date.

The city included a 27-page excerpt of Campbell’s testimony in a court motion pushing for summary judgment. Campbell told lawyers during that testimony about a July interview he had with agents from the FBI, IRS and the Department of Justice.

He said the interview was focused on controversial utility contracts in Independence and Missouri medical marijuana permits. Campbell said he was asked about various political figures, including Weir, Walker, former council members Curt Dougherty and Tom Van Camp, along with Tilley, the well known Missouri lobbyist.

In that transcript, Campbell maintains that he was never the subject of an FBI investigation but acknowledged he was a witness.

But that deposition is also contested.

Last week, attorneys for Campbell asked the court to exclude portions of his deposition from motions from the city’s attorney. The city has used his testimony in its push for summary judgment, arguing that Campbell’s own testimony shows the claims made in the original Star story about his involvement in an FBI investigation were true.

“At the time the allegedly slanderous article was printed, Campbell was aware of the FBI investigation involving persons associated with the City of Independence, including himself,” the city’s attorney wrote.

In a separate motion, Campbell’s attorney argued that the deposition should not be used as it hasn’t been completed, isn’t fully transcribed and has not been sent to Campbell to read and sign.

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