A reporter who discovered a data flaw in a state website and was called a “hacker” by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson will not face criminal charges.
Cole County Prosecutor Locke Thompson on Friday elected not to take action against St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Josh Renaud, who discovered that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website revealed teachers’ Social Security numbers within its HTML source code, which is available to any member of the public using commonly available web browsers.
The newspaper said it alerted the agency prior to publishing a story on the matter and maintained that its reporter did not violate state law.
Parson, in a news conference following the story, labeled Renaud a “hacker” and said the state would pursue criminal prosecution. He referred the matter to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which investigated the incident and presented its case to Thompson.
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Thompson “believes the matter has been properly addressed and resolved through non-legal means,” Parson spokesperson Kelli Jones said in a statement Friday evening. She continued to refer to the incident as a “hacking” and said Thompson’s decision not to press charges was “his prerogative.”
In a statement Friday to KRCG 13, Thompson said “it is not in the best interest of Cole County citizens to utilize the significant resources and taxpayer dollars that would be necessary to pursue misdemeanor criminal charges in this case.” He did not respond to a request for comment from the News-Leader on Friday.
In an extensive statement released Friday, Renaud called the decision a relief but said “it does not repair the harm done to me and my family,” requesting an apology from Parson.
“This was a political persecution of a journalist, plain and simple,” Renaud said. “Despite this, I am proud that my reporting exposed a critical issue, and that it caused the state to take steps to better safeguard teachers’ private data.”
Renaud said he was concerned that Parson’s threats against him and his newspaper “likely will have a chilling effect, deterring people from reporting security or privacy flaws in Missouri, and decreasing the chance those flaws get fixed.”
He referenced Parson’s statement following the resignation of state health director Donald Kauerauf last week after the Missouri Senate failed to confirm him, which the Republican called “disgraceful.”
“Every word Gov. Parson wrote applies equally to the way he treated me,” Renaud said. “Since my ordeal began, I have tried to follow Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:44 to ‘bless those who curse you’ and ‘pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.’ It hasn’t been easy.”
Ian Caso, president and publisher of the newspaper, said in a statement he was “pleased the prosecutor recognized there was no legitimate basis for any charges against the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or our reporter.”
“This matter should have never gone beyond the state’s initial, intended response, which was to thank the reporter for the responsible way he handled the situation,” Caso said. “Instead, too much taxpayer money has been wasted in a politically-motivated investigation.”
Follow Galen Bacharier on Twitter @galenbacharier.