Friday, March 25, 2016

Sunshine Law requests indicate correspondence between Huff, White House has vanished

Don't you just hate it when you really need to get a message to Joe Biden and you can't find a way to get it to him?

That was the problem, former Joplin R-8 Superintendent C. J. Huff faced as he tried to find a way to get his thank-you message directly to the vice president, rather than have it go through normal channels.

Biden was the featured speaker at the October 2014 dedication of Joplin High School, and in addition to providing a powerful message (and increasing the Joplin Tornado death toll from 161 to 161,000), Biden touched Huff's arm and consoled him when the ceremony brought the superintendent to tears.

But when it came time to thank Joe Biden for his speech (and his touch), for some reason it was difficult.

In an e-mail dated October 24, 2014, three weeks after the dedication, Huff wrote to Paulette Aniskoff, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, broaching the subject:

Paulette. I have a thank you note I'd like to get to the Vice President. Any thoughts on the best way to get it in his hands. I 'm sure he gets plenty of mail! CJ

When that e-mail failed to do the job, Huff sent another to Massie Ritsch of the Department of Education dated November 6:

Massie. Hate to bother you again, but I've tried to work my White House channels to try to get a note to the VP but haven't received a response. Do you have a contact I could email directly? CJ

On February 1, Huff decided to go for some face time with the vice president, sending an e-mail to Carrie Twigg, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement:

Carri. Just checking in.. .1'm in DC until tomorrow afternoon and wanted to check in one more time to see if VP Biden was available for a quick visit. Thanks again. CJ

Whether Huff ever met with Joe Biden is not evident from his e-mails, which were obtained by the Turner Report as a result of a Sunshine Law request. In fact, those and one other e-mail marked the only correspondence between Huff and anyone connected with the White House or the U. S. Department of Education concerning the high school dedication.

In the request, I asked for copies of all correspondence between C. J. Huff and anyone at the White House or between C. J. Huff and anyone at the Department of Education between March 1, 2014, and February 29, 2016, when my request was sent. I chose the two-year period because of a recent Joplin Globe article, in which school officials said they only kept e-mails for two years (which certainly limits anyone intending to do historical research on the school and the Joplin Tornado).

The material provided to me by the district did not include even one e-mail written by Huff to the White House prior to the October 24, 2014, message noted above.

Earlier e-mails obtained by the Turner Report from a Sunshine Law request to Gov. Jay Nixon's office show that Huff told Mike Nietzel of the governor's office that he was in touch with the White House and there was a possibility that President Obama would be at the dedication ceremony. Unless, there was no written documentation of that effort, which would be unusual to say the least, it no longer exists.

After the materials I requested were sent to me by Pat Waldo, the district's records custodian, along with a bill for $25, I sent Waldo the following message:

Ms. Waldo,

I am a bit concerned about the information I received from my Sunshine Law request.

First, there appears to be no documentation of any communications between C. J. Huff and the White House, the vice president's office, or the Secretary of Education concerning how Biden and Duncan came to be in Joplin for the opening of the new high school. The first mention of that in the records is three e-mails concerning Huff trying unsuccessfully to get in touch with Vice President Biden following the ceremony.

Since I earlier obtained records through a Sunshine Law request to the governor's office that show that C. J. used the district e-mail to contact the governor about the event and did so numerous times, I find it hard to believe that he did not do the same with the federal government.

Do these records no longer exist or were they overlooked?

I would have assumed there would have to be considerable communication before the ceremony and that both sides would have wanted it documented.

I would have also thought there would be other communications between C. J. Huff and the Department of Education in the last months before his retirement.

If there are some communications that were not included because they were sent to and from the vice president's office, could you please let me know that and conduct a search for that information (even though $25 a pop is a bit steep for the kind of information I received from Gov. Nixon's office at no charge).

Thanks for your time and consideration.

I received the following response from Waldo:

Mr. Turner,

I spoke to Dr. Ridder about your concerns regarding your Sunshine Law Request. He asked me to assure you that Joplin Schools is dedicated to full transparency to the public.

All of C. J. Huff's government emails were reviewed dating back to March 1, 2014 to complete your Sunshine Law request.

The logistics of Vice President, Biden and Secretary of Education, Duncan's attendance at the JHS Opening Day Ceremony were handled by the Community Development Staff.

I was a bit skeptical about that response, since anyone who knows anything about C. J. Huff is not going to believe that when the possibility exists of bringing the President of the United States to Joplin High School, or the vice president, or the secretary of education, that Huff is not going to play an active role in the effort, especially since the e-mails that were sent to me indicated that Huff was plying his own White House and Education Department sources, which had obviously been developed much earlier than October 24, 2014. I submitted the same request for information concerning the R-8 Community Development Staff's communications with the White House and the Department of Education.

I received the following response, this time from the district's lawyer Norman Rouse:

Mr. Turner I have been asked to review your record request and respond. It is my understanding your current record request is as follows: “ All communications between the Community Development staff and anyone at the White House, the vice president’s office or the Department of Education over the past two years” 

Based on a previous request I am going to assume that means back to March 1 2014. This is a very broad request and therefore it will take time to research our records to satisfy your request. 

We have decided that Kelli Price is the employee best suited to efficiently and competently research your request. Pursuant to RSMo 610.026 the school is allowed to bill the actual cost of research time. The hourly rate for this research is $30 an hour. We estimate it will take 3 hours to do the research. However be aware it may take more time or less time to research your request. Rest assured you will only be billed the actual time necessary to do the research. In addition there will be a cost of 10 cents a page to make copies and the billing rate to make those copies will not be $30 an hour but the hourly rate of a clerical position. We will have the records available to you before April 15th 2016. Once the records are available we will notify you and advise you of the cost associated with the research and record duplication. We will release the records upon receipt of payment.

Obviously if there is any information you can provide that will narrow search we would welcome it to reduce our research time and your costs. If you have any questions do not hesitate to contact me.

I sent a message late this morning rescinding my request. I cannot afford to pay the hourly rate for Price, whose hourly rate went up considerably when C. J. Huff, in one of his last acts, increased her salary from about $48,000 per year to approximately $63,000.

What have I learned from all of this? One, it appears that some important documents have either been misplaced or deleted. Two, the district is paying $30 per hour for someone to handle public relations. Nice work if you can get it.
Since there will undoubtedly be a few Turner Report haters who will say the information I was seeking is not important and is just another attack on C. J. Huff, I remind readers that on Tuesday night, the Joplin R-8 Board of Education will hear another report from CFO Paul Barr on whether the district will receive millions of dollars from FEMA, money that not only covers "errors and  omissions," but also the millions extra that were paid as part of Huff's push to get the building open on time and cash in on publicity from the dedication ceremony.

The documents would have provided a much needed glimpse at what the superintendent was telling the people in Washington about what was going on in Joplin at that time.


Anonymous said...

Will you take donations to help you raise the money?

Anonymous said...

I would recommend filing federal FOIA requests for the likely recipients of the desired R-8 communications.

Anonymous said...


It generally takes over a year to get requests filled from the government, but I bet it would be cheaper than paying for Kelli Price's inflated wages.

Anonymous said...

So, Kelli Price is going to research her own emails? Wasn't she in communications at that time? I suppose it will be like Cj's emails, and magically, there just won't be anything to find. Maybe they used messenger pigeons who have all sadly died of avian flu since then.

Anonymous said...

Why is Price still employed? Did she get an ironclad two year contract like Smith, Cravens and Doshier along with her loyalty raise? I'm disappointed that Ridder hasn't fired them all on moral grounds. Contracts don't cover that. It doesn't sound like transparency is really any better if the person who is researching is looking for her own material. Sounds sort of like more of the same.

Anonymous said...

Just reading CJ's emails in this post exposes the fact that he had emailed several times, as in "just checking in again". Why, one wonders, was it so imperative that CJ have a face-to-face conversation with the vice-president? Was he hoping to work in his upcoming need for a job? Hoping to get the audit forestalled that he knew was coming his way? Most people realize that the vice-president, or any high government official, is probably a little too busy to personally read every thank-you note sent their way. I also understand that for safety reasons, very little mail goes directly to the president or vice-president. What did CJ have to say that could only go to the VP? Interesting. So much is revealed that we can conjecture what else he might have said. Was he hoping the White House could pressure FEMA into paying for their unnecessary expenses with the schools? That would be a fair guess. Maybe he needed assistance paying for that stupid ribbon? Speaking of which, we never heard about the Guinness record. When will that little piece of goodness finally happen? Oh wait. It won't. It was a stupid waste of money and a disaster, just like everything else that bunch of idiots came up with.

We have so much to learn yet about where the money went and what has been covered up. That is why CJ is still in town, and it probably explains why the yard signs for some of the Board candidates are being stolen like crazy, and why his gal pal Carol Stark had the Board forum on the Thursday night before spring break started and when teachers were at school with the parents. It's a vain attempt (vanity and Huff go together like chocolate and peanut butter) to get Dermott and Gaarder in there to keep the facts hidden. It won't work. We are too smart to forget the damage done to our district and our children's educations in one year's time. CJ needs to quit lurking incognito in the coffee shop by the administration building and go back to the family farm in Kansas. Some good honest, hard work would be good for him. Might give him a better form of character, you know, like sunny versus shady.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Ridder and board,

Please fire Kelli Price....yesterday.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

9:05 here again.

I am aware of the likely delay with the federal FOIA. That is why I suggest filing the federal FOIA requests now on a parallel path in addition to whatever additional local action is taken.

Anonymous said...

Martucci, Sloan and Musser are the best people for the job, they will continue to bring change and distance the district from CJ Huff and his minions...he is delusional if he thinks he will be able to come back after Ridder is much in attorney's fees has the district had to pay because of his actions in defending him with lawsuits against the school district?? That would be some information to find out...

Anonymous said...

I certainly support Sunshine Law requests and information being made public. It will be interesting to see how the Turner Report uses this information if it is retrievable. I also can't help but agree with another commenter. "Vanity and Huff go together like chocolate and peanut butter"..... This is obvious if you have worked with him. He would sometimes meddle in projects he assigned to others, mainly anything in the community development dept, sometimes well meaning and sometimes not. This is a classic example of Huff meddling in a project he didn't have a role in other than speaking in a ceremony. My guess is he sent these emails out of an illusion there was a working relationship with the white house beyond the event.