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Kansas City Hall argues it’s not illegal to lie to the media

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Kansas City officials argue that lying to the media is not against the law and should not be the basis of a whistleblower complaint filed against the city by its former chief spokesman.

The city filed a motion in the Jackson County Circuit Court last week seeking a dismissal of a lawsuit brought by Chris Hernandez, the city’s former communications director. In his lawsuit, Hernandez claimed he was demoted for refusing to lie to The Star and other local news organizations about city projects and services at the behest of City Manager Brian Platt.

In its motion, the city argues that lying to the press is not a violation of any law, rule, or regulation.

“Despite the respected place the press holds as the fourth tier of American politics, there is no law governing false disclosures to the press,” the city’s motion said. “There is also no rule or regulation established by any governmental agency, including the city, that governs false disclosures to the press.”

In his original lawsuit, Hernandez said he was “unwilling to risk his credibility for Platt,” alleging that the city manager ordered employees to lie as part of a “media strategy.”

Hernandez is suing the city for damages under a Missouri law protecting whistleblowers and says he lost his job for telling Platt that he “shouldn’t be dishonest with the news media and the public.” However, the city’s motion argues that Hernandez does not meet the definition of a whistleblower under Missouri law and calls for the lawsuit to be dismissed.

Whistleblower laws protect employees who disclose information about prohibited activities, the city argues, and Hernandez relayed his opinion only to Platt.

“To be clear, the city does not condone lying to the press, nor has it lied, but even if it does and has done so, such an act is not a violation of any law, rule or regulation and does not qualify.” as a “disclosure” under Missouri law, the city’s record says.

The city’s filing also notes that Hernandez did not accuse the city manager of lying to the media.

“At best — and something the city will vehemently deny if required by a lawsuit — Mr. Platt asked why he couldn’t lie to the media,” the city’s motion states.

The city’s response did not deter the plaintiff.

“I am confident that we can overcome the motion to dismiss,” said Lynne Jaben Bratcher, Hernandez’s attorney.

The lawsuit stemmed from the city’s communications strategy regarding road renewal and pothole repair.

In the lawsuit, Hernandez alleged that Platt called a meeting with communications staff at his downtown office in January 2022 and discussed strategies for dealing with the Kansas City news media. During that meeting, Platt reportedly raised the prospect of lying as a “legitimate media strategy.”

In the spring, the city’s communications team prepared a press release detailing how many kilometers of the city’s roads would be renewed in the coming fiscal year based on available funds.

A drafted press release stated “nearly 300” lane miles, according to the lawsuit; Platt had the communications team remove the word “almost.” Days before the event, the lawsuit alleges Platt knowingly inflated the project’s benefits on social media by saying the city would repave “over 400” lane miles.

“Our summer of road renewal is in full swing. More than 400 miles planned for this spring and summer! But what’s under the old asphalt is sometimes special: over 100-year-old pavers and an original streetcar route here on Brooklyn Ave!” Platt wrote in a May 6 Twitter post.

Hernandez claims he is concerned that the city manager lied about that number, since no other staff knew of an increase in miles to be paved.

The lawsuit also referenced a May story in The Star about the city’s work on potholes. Hernandez claims Platt was upset with the story and instructed staff to call the newspaper and say that “the numbers were wrong,” when in fact they were correct.

During a meeting at a Kansas City coffee shop, Hernandez says in his lawsuit, he was asked by Platt why another member of the communications team resigned and other employees left. Hernandez says he told Platt that many were upset with how they were being treated.

The following month, the lawsuit states, Hernandez was told by Platt that he did not have the “shared vision” for the communications department and was reassigned.

Hernandez, a former television reporter who worked in the city’s communications department for ten years, is now a special liaison officer in the city’s Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity Department.

The Star’s Bill Lukitsch contributed to this story.

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Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He has also worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas

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