JEFFERSON CITY - A weeks-long controversy involving the state illegally sharing the personal information of Missouri gun owners took a dramatic turn Thursday as Gov. Jay Nixon said he will not testify in a trial on the matter in a southeastern Missouri court.
The Stoddard County Circuit court has issued a subpoena for Nixon to testify on May 3 as part of a case involving Missouri license offices sharing information about gun owners with the federal government and third-party companies. The plaintiff's attorney in the case, Russell Oliver, has said he wants to question several high-ranking state officials in connection with the lawsuit against the state Department of Revenue and a local license office.
KMOX reporter Brett Blume cornered the governor at an event in St. Charles on Thursday and asked him whether he plans to answer Oliver's questions.
"Governor what about the subpoena? And are you going to appear at the May 3rd hearing?" Blume asked.
In a jumbled answer, the governor first flatly rejected the idea that he would appear in Stoddard County. Then he quickly said he'd turn the matter over to his legal counsel.
"No," Nixon said. "I, I, I've, people, by golly, guys, I've been in public service for 26 years, I've been, uh, huh, eh, I'll leave that to the lawyers."
Nixon's lawyers can ask the court in Stoddard County to quash the subpoena, meaning the governor would not have to show up. But public records of the case's filings show that no such motion had been filed as of Thursday afternoon. Oliver also said that he hadn't received any notice of such a motion, which would require a court hearing to decide.
Nixon could be held in contempt of court if he refuses to comply with the subpoena and the state Constitution allows a governor to be impeached if he breaks the law.
Just hours after the governor spoke to KMOX, Republican House Speaker Tim Jones, of Eureka, left open the possibility that Nixon face impeachment if he breaks the law and ignores the Stoddard County order.
"You know I'll reserve judgement on that, but I think all options need to be on the table regarding this matter because I hear from more and more Missourians about this every day, not just people who have CCW permits," Jones said while talking to reporters at the state Capitol.
Jones did say that subpoena orders could be adjusted around the governor's schedule, but he said Nixon should still answer questions in the case.
The lawsuit has sparked a fervent investigation into the Department of Revenue by the Senate Appropriations Committee over the past four weeks. In Senate hearings, Department of Revenue officials have confirmed that the department is maintaining a database of personal information about people with permits to carry concealed weapons and they confirmed that that infromation has been shared with federal officials on multiple occasions. The revenue department's former head, Brian Long, stepped down in the wake of the scandal just days ago and the state Senate has passed a proposed budget that slashes funding for the revenue department in response to the scandal.
That practice, Republicans say, is in direct violation of a Missouri state law that makes a person’s concealed-carry status a part of their private personal information. Groups that advocate for fewer restrictions on gun ownership have long voiced their fears about a federal database of guns and gun owners. They say the assembly of such a database could be the first step in a plan to confiscate all legally registered weapons in the country.
Oliver, the plaintiff's attorney, said after governor's remarks that he wants to question the governor not as a publicity stunt, but because he believes Nixon knows facts about the revenue department's decision that are important to the court case.
"I think it's unfortunate that he's taken this approach," he said. "He's a public official that is put in the position that he's in by the citizens of the state of Missouri and he's just like anyone else when has material information to a lawsuit."
The information-sharing controversy strikes at a particularly sensitive moment in Missouri, where lawmakers from both parties have been pushing gun bills in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Connecticut late last year.
But Jones said Nixon could put the controversy to rest by answering questions in the Stoddard County lawsuit.
"At this point, I think the governor needs to come clean with Mr. Oliver's request," Jones said.