Newton County officials file suit against county commissioners

Lee Ann Murphy
Community Editor

On Tuesday, Newton County Recorder of Deeds Jennifer Childers and Newton County Treasurer Gina Rodriguez filed in Newton County Circuit court for a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order. Both office holders accuse Presiding Commissioner Bill Reiboldt along with County Commissioners Alan Cook and Jim Jackson of issuing orders that interfere with the operation of their respective offices as well as the office of County Clerk Tami Owens as well as attempting to intimidate them.

Owens is not involved in the legal action.

The plaintiffs (Childers and Rodriguez) contend that in June, the county commissioners took action which allows both the commissioners as well as a company hired by them, Stronghold Data, access to what they consider sensitive records and information restricted from the public and other county offices.

The same action provided access to the Missouri Centralized Voter Registration System. The United States Department of Homeland Security has deemed these records to be critical infrastructure and thus not accessible to any office except that of the County Clerk. According to the plaintiffs, the treasurer was also ordered not to pay any checks submitted by the Recorder's office with Commissioner approval.

The filing asks the court to issue a temporary injunction until the issue is decided for a restraining order to prevent Stronghold Data from entering county offices unless they are customers.

Rodriguez and Childers have retained Carthage attorney William J. Lasley along with Karl W. Blanchard, Joplin, as co-counsel.

The petition filed reads:

On June 24, 2020, the Defendants issued four illegal and lawfully unauthorized "Orders" directed to Plaintiff Gina Rodriguez, Newton County Treasurer, to Plaintiff Jennifer Childers, Newton County Recorder of Deeds and to Tami Owens, Newton County Clerk. 

The said "orders" were not issued by any court of law.

The afore described " orders " " ordered " Treasurer, Gina Rodriguez, to provide to the Defendant County Commissioners all invoices which the County Treasurer has paid for the year 2020 and further ordered the Treasurer not to pay checks for Recorder's Office expenditures without prior approval from the Commission. 

Additionally, the " order s " told Plaintiffs and the County Clerk to provide "discovery access" to their respective offices' computers, equipment and domain and infrastructure devices to a company known as "Stronghold Data" and further, to provide Stronghold Data with written credentials (e.g. passwords) to allow Stronghold Data access to the three offices and their computers. 

The afore said " orders" further stated that if the said office holders did not grant said access and provide written domain and infrastructure credentials (i.e. passwords) to Stronghold Data, access to the three office holders' offices and computers would be achieved by Defendants after the offices' closing hours.

Additionally, on June 24, 2020, the said Newton County Commission issued an email directive to all Newton County office holders forbidding any county official from allowing Mr. Michael Keels and Mr. Kevin Pruitt access to any Newton County Building. Mr. Michael Keels and Mr. Kevin Pruitt are information technology (i.e. computer) providers and services of the Recorder's Office's computers, the computers of the offices of the County Treasurer and those of County Clerk .

The said actions of the said Defendants are unlawful, invalid and beyond their legal authority, as the County Recorder of Deeds, Newton County Treasurer and the Newton County Clerk are each duly and independently elected county officials, whose duties are defined by statutes and who take oaths to support the Constitution of this state. 

No statute or case law provides authority for the Commissioners' said "Orders" or for their e - mail letter. No statute or law requires Plaintiffs to follow these unlawful "Orders".

Upon information and belief, Defendants' said actions are intended to require the Plaintiffs and the County Clerk's office, to employ Stronghold Data as their sole computer service and information technology provider to the exclusion of any other provider, so as to allow the Defendants and Stronghold Data access to the daily operations and internal communications of the Plaintiffs' independent offices, in order to control, intimidate and interfere with Plaintiff office holders and their staffs . 

The said action of the Defendants, in requiring the County Treasurer to submit all invoices which she has heretofore paid from January 1 to June 29, 2020 and in forbidding her to write checks for expenses incurred by the Recorder's Office without prior approval of the Defendants oversteps the Commission's legal authority and attempts to impinge upon the independence and autonomy of the Plaintiff Recorder of Deeds and upon the independence and autonomy of the County Treasurer and the County Clerk. 

Judge Gregory Stremel has asked to be recused from the case and requested that a new judge assignment be made.

No date has been set for the case.