Government & Politics

Heavyweight D.C. law firm represented Hawley for free in 2016

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is vying for the Senate seat now held by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is vying for the Senate seat now held by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley received free representation from one of the most well-connected law firms in Washington, D.C. during his 2016 campaign for attorney general in Missouri.

There is no record of campaign payments to Cooper & Kirk PLLC in Hawley’s state campaign filings from 2016, nor is the firm’s work on Hawley’s behalf recorded as an in-kind donation.

Hawley’s Senate campaign says he didn’t need to disclose Cooper & Kirk’s legal services. The work was related to an open records request by a former state representative who supported Hawley’s primary opponent in the attorney general race.

“Missouri law does not require work of this nature to be listed as an in-kind contribution,” said Kelli Ford, Hawley’s spokeswoman.

Under Missouri law, candidates must report in-kind contributions, which include contributions “in a form other than money.”

The statutes define contributions in part as “anything of value for the purpose of supporting or opposing the nomination or election of any candidate for public office” or for “paying debts or obligations” of the candidate.

Violations can result in fines and requiring candidates to file amended campaign finance reports.

James Klahr, executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission, wouldn’t speak about Hawley’s situation specifically. But he said legal work during a campaign can fall into a gray area. The commission would have to determine on a case by case basis whether it deemed such services “related to the campaign,” he said.

Hawley now is running for Senate in Missouri. If he wins the Republican nomination, he’ll face Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in November in what is expected to be one of the most hotly contested races in the 2018 midterms.

More than a year before Hawley launched his Senate bid in October 2017, an attorney with the law firm Cooper & Kirk PLLC, John Ohlendorf, represented Hawley in a lawsuit over an open records request to University of Missouri for Hawley’s emails and other documents.

The lawsuit was filed in May 2016 by former Republican State Rep. Kevin Elmer. At the time, Elmer was backing Hawley’s opponent, State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, in a bitter GOP primary for attorney general.

Hawley’s attorney general campaign issued a statement after the lawsuit was filed.

“Senator Schaefer’s dirty tricks are one more reminder why Missouri voters are disgusted with Jefferson City politicians,” the statement said. “After abusing the power of his office to promote his own political career, Senator Schaefer is now trying to abuse the court system. He should be ashamed.”

The suit was dismissed in September 2016, after Hawley secured the Republican attorney general nomination. He would go on to beat his Democratic opponent in the general election two months later.

Ford, Hawley’s Senate campaign spokeswoman, told The Kansas City Star that Cooper & Kirk represented Hawley in the lawsuit pro bono, or at no charge. Asked why, she said, “He went with Cooper & Kirk because they’re good lawyers.”

The Washington, D.C.-based firm describes itself as “one of the nation’s premier trial and appellate litigation firms.” Its motto, “victory or death,” is symbolized by swords the firm gives to its lawyers, including conservative stars Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Tom Cotton, R-Ark. Both worked there before running for the Senate. Prominent clients include the National Rifle Association, Bank of America, Verizon and Shell Oil.

The firm’s founding member and chairman, Charles Cooper, was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel. Cooper advised Cruz’s presidential campaign and helped U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions prepare for his confirmation hearing.

Cooper also is registered as a lobbyist in Washington. In recent years he has represented Sheldon Adelson-backed Coaltion to Stop Internet Gambling, Inseego Corporation and DuPont, Senate disclosure records show.

The law firm declined to comment for this article.

Experts said that whether Hawley should have disclosed the 2016 pro-bono work by Cooper & Kirk in his state campaign filings depends on the facts. The question is whether Cooper & Kirk represented Hawley in a personal capacity or in his capacity as a candidate.

“This is the exact same issue that has been raised with the president’s lawyer paying Stormy Daniels $130,000,” said Chuck Hatfield, a longtime Jefferson City attorney who previously served as chief of staff and counsel for former Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon. Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen has said he used his “personal funds to facilitate a payment” in 2016 to Daniels, an adult film star who says she had an affair with Trump.

“The campaign is claiming it was a personal expense,” Hatfield said, “but the circumstances could lead to the conclusion it was related to the campaign given the timing of the payments and the fact that it would have had a serious impact on the campaign.”

He said there is an argument to be made that the defense of the lawsuit was related to Hawley’s campaign “because it was so close to the primary and because the suit was the subject of much discussion during the campaign — such that the donation of legal fees was for the purpose of supporting a candidate and those fees should have been disclosed as an in-kind contribution.”

It doesn’t help Hawley that he now is paying the same law firm from his Senate campaign funds for work related to open records requests, said Brendan Fischer, federal and FEC reform program director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.

Hawley’s Senate campaign paid Cooper & Kirk $87,614 in the last three months of 2017 for legal expenses related to open records requests filed by the Democratic PAC American Bridge 21st Century and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Both groups have asked for emails and other records from the attorney general’s office and from the University of Missouri, where Hawley worked as a law professor before taking office. Hawley’s wife, Erin, still works as a professor at the university’s law school.

Hawley’s Senate campaign has said Democrats’ requests are part of “a deliberate strategy” by McCaskill and Democrats to smear Hawley and his wife.

“It is significant that Hawley is using campaign funds to pay his Washington D.C.-based Cooper & Kirk attorneys for his 2018 open records battles, but did not pay those same attorneys with campaign funds when they represented him in his 2016 open records fights,” Fischer said.

But Hawley’s Senate campaign says that Missouri law strictly limits what kind of legal expenses can be paid for with state campaign funds.

The Missouri Ethics Commission has held that the definition of “ordinary and necessary” campaign expenses allowable under Missouri law does not include most legal fees, “even those with some electoral nexus,” said Ford, Hawley’s spokeswoman.

Federal law is much more inclusive of what kind of expenses can be paid for with campaign funds, she said.

“Because the legal representation performed by Cooper & Kirk during the attorney general campaign falls outside the scope of ‘ordinary and necessary (campaign) expenses’ for a state race, the AG campaign strictly complied with Missouri law by not using campaign funds for these expenses,” Ford said.

That’s why his attorney general campaign paid lawyers from another firm for campaign-related work.

“But now that Josh Hawley is a federal candidate, we must strictly adhere to the federal laws that treat such expenses as campaign-related activities,” Ford said.

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise

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