ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — A spree of social media posts this week warn that St. Louis County released the information it got from people who reported businesses in violation of the stay-at-home order.
The document, released in response to a Sunshine Law request, included names and contact information of the people making the reports. In their messages, some asked for anonymity.
Posts and comments in response to the document invited retaliation against the people who utilized the county’s inbox for tips about non-essential businesses that stayed open.
The I-Team’s PJ Randhawa talked with a woman whose tip was among those released. Patricia asked that we not use her last name, because she fears what someone might do with the information in the document.
“We're in a society where doing what's right doesn't always get rewarded,” she said.
Patricia has lupus. Two other people in her house have autoimmune issues.
“We have to be extra careful because we don’t have the strength to fight this,” she said. “I saw a lot of businesses that were non-essential that were open and had lines outside, parking lots filled as if the order didn't matter to them. And that was kinda frustrating."
Tips flood in after county asks for help
What Patricia did is exactly what St. Louis County intended when it established two ways for people to submit tips on non-compliant businesses. County government announced the creation of an online form and a dedicated email address for those tips in the last week of March.
In a little over a week, those channels received more than 900 tips from the public, the released documents show. Among the complaints are employees and their family members asking for anonymity because they feared backlash from employers.
RELATED: St. Louis County police warn non-compliant businesses: Expect enforcement of stay-at-home order
The online form some of them used warned that the tips they submitted could become public records.
A disclaimer that form submitters had to acknowledge before sending says, “I have been advised that this form and any other communication may be considered an open record pursuant to the Sunshine Law, Chapter 610 RSMo. St. Louis County may be required to release this form as well as other communications as a matter of law upon request by any member of the public, including the media.”
Patricia said she never expected it to end up on Facebook, posted by someone whose motive seemed to be revenge.
Social media backlash
The Facebook post headline said, “Here ya go. The gallery of snitches, busybodies, and employees who rat out their own neighbors and employers over the Panic-demic.”
A person whose Facebook profile name is Jared Totsch told the I-Team that he posted the documents knowing that there might be consequences for the people named within.
“If they are worried about retaliation, they should have read the fine print which stated their tips would be open public record subject to a Sunshine request, and should not have submitted tips in that manner to begin with,” wrote Totsch. “I released the info in an attempt to discourage such behavior in the future.”
Totsch declined a phone or video interview. When asked how he felt about the possibility that someone who reported a business might lose their job, Totsch wrote, “I'd call it poetic justice, instant Karma, a dose of their own medicine. What goes around, comes around. They are now experiencing the same pain that they themselves helped to inflict on those they filed complaints against.”
That’s exactly the attitude that has Patricia concerned now.
“I'm not only worried about COVID, I'm worried about someone showing up at my door, showing up at my workplace or me getting fired for doing what is right,” she said.
How it got to your news feed
St. Louis County told the I-Team that it released the information to a “broadcast journalist” in response to a Sunshine Law request.
Jared Totsch wrote in his original Facebook post that he had filed a Sunshine Law request for the documents, but later stated that he re-posted them from a different group that published them first.
The Missouri Sunshine Law gives the public and media the right to request records made or received by any public agency, with some exceptions. Among those exceptions is a clause allowing tips to municipal hotlines about abuse and wrongdoing to be withheld. But the county’s review of the request found no reason to withhold information about who sent the tips.
The St. Louis County executive’s director of communications, Doug Moore, wrote, “In this particular instance, our county counselor’s office consulted with the [attorney general]’s office on releasing the list of those who had filed complaints against county businesses. We were told all the information was public and we should not redact (except for HIPAA information). Withholding information goes against what journalists push us to be – as transparent as possible.”
Moore also mentioned that the county is working to be more transparent following the consent order between the current county executive administration and the attorney general’s office regarding allegations of Sunshine Law violations in the previous administration.
The tips include claims against 29 of the businesses that were issued violation letters at the beginning of April.
Patricia believes there’s a reason to redact information like the senders’ names from messages like these. She also has a message for the people spreading the document around the internet.
“What did you get out of sharing the info on who did it?” she said. “It's asinine and I have to question, whoever shared the list... what were your motives?”
In the end, she said, she’s learned a hard lesson.
“When there is something that happens next time, I'm not going to feel safe or protected enough to call the local authorities.”