ST. LOUIS (MCT) — The Missouri National Guard, after initially refusing to divulge reports about suspected looting by soldiers after the Joplin tornado, publicly released them this week under orders from Gov. Jay Nixon.
The investigative memos show that one day after a devastating tornado struck Joplin last year, four soldiers assigned to look for survivors pocketed video game equipment and a digital camera they found at a ruined Wal-Mart.
The heavily redacted documents do not identify the soldiers involved in what the documents refer to as incidents of “theft,” but the memos give the soldiers’ ranks: one sergeant and three specialists.
All the soldiers were demoted and had letters of reprimand placed in their personnel files, said Major Tammy Spicer, a spokeswoman for the Guard.
The soldiers believed that the merchandise was going to be destroyed, according to a memo written by Captain Matthew J. Brown, who investigated the matter.
The sergeant who took merchandise was told by someone he believed to be a Wal-Mart employee that the items would be discarded, and all the men told investigators they saw bulldozers pushing debris and merchandise away from the site, Brown wrote in one of the memos.
The 13 pages released by the Guard include Brown’s recommendations for discipline: demote the sergeant to specialist and the other soldiers to the rank of private first class. Spicer said the Guard followed Brown’s recommendations.
The thefts happened on the same day, but in two separate and unrelated incidents. The sergeant gave one of the specialists permission to take merchandise, the documents show.
Tipped off by another soldier on the scene, the Guard launched an investigation days after the thefts. The four soldiers confessed and “expressed regret over taking the items,” according to the documents.
Although the incidents may appear minor, Spicer said the Guard believed it was a serious matter.
“They were briefed not to take things, so this was a breach of their mission and the public trust,” she said.
Last week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the Guard refused to provide investigative reports and other documents requested by the newspaper. The Guard is not subject to the Missouri Sunshine Law, which requires government agencies to keep most records and meetings open to the public.
Missouri is the only state in the nation that completely exempts the National Guard from state open-records law, according to Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization dedicated to state and local government transparency.
On Saturday — three days after the Post-Dispatch story was published — Nixon signed a letter ordering Major General Stephen Danner, the Guard’s adjutant general, to release the documents.
Nixon, a Democrat, is the Guard’s commander in chief. He appointed Danner, a former Democratic state representative and state senator, to head the Guard.
“Governor Nixon wanted the citizens of Missouri to understand the details of what happened,” Spicer said.
The merchandise taken by the soldiers included three Nintendo game consoles, two Xbox video games, a Kodak digital camera and a headset. Brown set the retail value of the items at $776, excluding the headset, which had no identification and could not be valued.
Jean Maneke, a board member of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition and legal consultant for the Missouri Press Association, praised the Guard for releasing the documents. But she said decisions on releasing records shouldn’t be left to the Guard, as it is under current Missouri law.
“There needs to be more transparency,” Maneke said, noting that local police forces and other state departments are subject to the Sunshine Law. “Why is there a different standard for the Guard?”
The Missouri National Guard includes more than 11,500 soldiers and airmen and receives the vast majority of its $660 million annual budget from the federal government. But it also has 440 full-time state employees and receives about $37 million from the state.