Government & Politics

Is Josh Hawley living up to his signature campaign pledge to fight public corruption?

“Where we see corruption and can make a case against it, we’re being aggressive,” Attorney General Josh Hawley says. Missouri Democrats contend there’s no evidence that Hawley took any steps to create a public corruption unit until after they began asking questions about the unit’s existence in July.
“Where we see corruption and can make a case against it, we’re being aggressive,” Attorney General Josh Hawley says. Missouri Democrats contend there’s no evidence that Hawley took any steps to create a public corruption unit until after they began asking questions about the unit’s existence in July. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Among the major planks of Josh Hawley’s successful campaign for attorney general last year was his promise to create a public corruption unit to investigate and prosecute misconduct by elected officials.

Hawley says he’s living up to that promise.

His office is prosecuting three local elected officials for allegations ranging from theft to forgery, and Hawley says ongoing investigations are looking into allegations of impropriety in the Missouri Capitol.

“Fighting public corruption is essential to preserving a working democracy that people have confidence in,” Hawley said in an interview with The Star. “I said that time and again on the campaign trail, and that’s why it’s such a high priority for me.”

Missouri Democrats aren’t so sure. And now that Hawley is actively exploring a run for U.S. Senate next year, they’re taking aim at the first-term Republican from Columbia, accusing him of ignoring his campaign’s signature pledge.

They contend there’s no evidence Hawley took any steps to create a public corruption unit until after Democrats began asking questions about the unit’s existence in July. And when allegations of corruption began percolating in Jefferson City earlier this year involving Hawley’s biggest campaign donor, Democrats say the attorney general remained steadfastly on the sidelines.

“Attorney General Josh Hawley is clearly the worst type of politician — saying one thing to get elected, doing another once in office, and trying to cover his tracks when found out,” said Meira Bernstein, communications director for the Missouri Democratic Party.

During his 2016 run for attorney general, Hawley regularly panned the political culture in Missouri’s statehouse.

“People don’t have any confidence in Jefferson City,” Hawley told The Star shortly before the election. “There’s incredible anger in the political establishment, and one of the reasons is special interests dominate the Capitol in our state.”

Seven months after taking the oath of office, Hawley stands by those words.

“I still believe special interests exert a heck of a lot of influence,” he said. “That’s a problem in our Capitol, that Jefferson City is crawling with lobbyists and special interests.”

On his second day as attorney general, Hawley established a strict ethics policy for the office that prohibits his employees from accepting gifts from lobbyists or from communicating about the business of the attorney general’s office with someone trying to lobby on behalf of a client unless that person is registered as a lobbyist under Missouri law.

As for the promise to set up a unit within the office to focus on public corruption, Hawley says he has followed through, appointing his top deputies to serve on the team. It’s led by Deputy Attorney General Darrell Moore.

“We’ve been very aggressive,” Hawley said, pointing to the prosecution of the Cass County administrator for theft, the Cooper County clerk for receiving stolen property and theft, and the Mississippi County sheriff for robbery, forgery and tampering with computer data.

“You can see what we have done,” he said. “Where we see corruption and can make a case against it, we’re being aggressive.”

On July 12, the Missouri Democratic Party filed an open records request for any emails or internal communications regarding a public corruption unit in the attorney general’s office. A few days later the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee filed a similar request.

The documents turned over to Democrats by Hawley’s office didn’t include any emails or correspondence pertaining to the public corruption unit by the attorney general’s staff before the open records request was filed. In a July 13 email, members of Hawley’s staff were informed that the attorney general wanted to add a page to his website for the public corruption unit. Staff then discussed what the page should say and look like.

A week later, Hawley’s office put out a press release touting a third prosecution by the “Public Corruption Team.” This was the first mention of such a team’s existence in a press release.

“There is no evidence that Hawley, or his office, made any effort to create a public corruption unit prior to their receipt of the Missouri Democratic Party’s sunshine request on July 12,” Bernstein said.

Loree Anne Paradise, Hawley’s spokeswoman, said the reason no emails from before July were turned over to the Democrats is that “public corruption investigations are highly sensitive and many records related to them are closed under Missouri law to protect the integrity of pending investigations.”

“But the facts are pretty straightforward,” Paradise said. “The attorney general’s public corruption team began work after he took office and launched its first prosecution in April (of the Mississippi County sheriff), long before any politicians thought to attack him.”

But Bernstein questions why Hawley’s office made no public announcement about the formation of the corruption team, or why there was never any public mention of the team whatsoever until after the Democrats began asking questions. By contrast, on other initiatives, such as efforts to combat human trafficking, Hawley has made big public roll-outs.

“It does not add up,” she said.

Democrats also panned Hawley’s response to pay-to-play allegations against David Humphreys, a Joplin businessman who donated $3 million to Hawley’s campaign last year.

The allegations surround a bill sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, that would have benefited Humphrey’s company. Richard filed the legislation on Dec. 1, 2016. Six days later, he received a $100,000 contribution from Humphreys.

Richard’s office also provided a parking spot in the Missouri Senate garage at the Capitol for Paul Mouton, a southwest Missouri political consultant who is widely considered to be Humphreys’ eyes and ears in the statehouse. A complaint was filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission accusing Mouton of lobbying without properly registering, a violation of state law.

Both Richard and Humphreys have vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

Asked about the situation in April, Hawley told KCUR that his office didn’t have criminal jurisdiction over pay-to-play allegations in the Capitol. That, he said, would have to be handled by the local prosecutor.

In an interview with The Star, Hawley says he doesn’t see any evidence of corruption involving Humphreys and Richard’s relationship.

“You have a contributor who gives to someone, and that’s not against the law,” Hawley said. “We’ve received no evidence in that case that would suggest any wrongdoing. In fact, we’ve received no evidence at all in that case.”

Bernstein says there’s no way for Hawley to know if any wrongdoing occurred between Humphreys and Richard “since he ignored bipartisan calls to investigate the situation.”

Hawley calls the Democrats’ allegations that he’s not not living up to his campaign promises “absurd,” adding that he’s proud of the work his office has done so far.

“If you abuse the public trust,” he said, “we’re going to find you and and we’re going to prosecute you.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

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