Government & Politics

Top Pence aide Nick Ayers denies breaking the law while running Greitens campaign

Nick Ayers (left), Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, and Don McGahn, the White House counsel, watch as President Donald Trump speaks after signing an executive order on immigrant family separations on June 20.
Nick Ayers (left), Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, and Don McGahn, the White House counsel, watch as President Donald Trump speaks after signing an executive order on immigrant family separations on June 20.

Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff denies allegations in a newly filed ethics complaint that he violated Missouri campaign finance laws while helping to run former Gov. Eric Greitens’ 2016 campaign.

Nick Ayers served as Greitens' top political consultant in 2016 and was later paid by Greitens' nonprofit, A New Missouri Inc. His protégé, Austin Chambers, was Greitens’ top adviser during his 17 months as governor.

In June 2017, Ayers became Pence's chief of staff. He is considered a possible replacement as President Donald Trump's chief of staff if John Kelly leaves that post.

In a complaint filed Tuesday with the Missouri Ethics Commission against Greitens' campaign and nonprofit, Ayers is accused of helping both entities commit multiple campaign finance violations — most notably illegally working to conceal the identity of donors.

Greitens resigned from office June 1, facing numerous allegations of criminal misconduct. Tuesday's complaint was filed by Republican Rep. Jay Barnes of Jefferson City, who served as chairman of the House committee that investigated Greitens as a precursor to possible impeachment.

Among the pieces of evidence included in the complaint is a December 2015 email discussion between Ayers and Meredith Gibbons, Greitens’ fundraiser, about a “restricted donor.”

“There is a restricted donor that we’d like for you to reach out to when you have time,” Gibbons wrote to Ayers. “I can explain more over the phone.”

Ayers replied: “Will buzz you soon re: restricted donor.”

The two never elaborate on what they mean by “restricted donor.”

But the complaint implies the donor could have been legally prohibited from contributing to Greitens' campaign. Barnes points to another email, this one in June 2016, sent to Gibbons from an undisclosed “early supporter and fundraiser of Greitens.”

The email says a potential donor may not be able to give because he “manages money for the state of Missouri.”

“Eric can mention the 501(c)(4) if applicable, but no idea how [redacted] will react to that,” the email says.

Two days after Gibbons received the email, the complaint notes, a Texas-based nonprofit called Freedom Frontier donated $500,000 to LG PAC, a Kansas-based political action committee.

All told, Freedom Frontier would end up giving $4 million to LG PAC, which it spent attacking Greitens’ rivals for the 2016 GOP gubernatorial nomination.

Ayers said on financial disclosure forms filed last year that he was paid by both Freedom Frontier and the Greitens campaign in 2016.

Evidence gathered by the Missouri House investigative committee, Barnes wrote in the complaint “strongly suggests that Greitens for Missouri engaged in activity purposefully designed to conceal donor identities.”

Alyssa Farah, press secretary for the vice president's office, said Barnes' complaint was lodged “against former clients of Mr. Ayers, who has always complied with federal and state campaign finance laws meticulously, and did so in this instance as well.”

It’s not the first time that Ayers’ connection to Freedom Frontier has drawn scrutiny.

A liberal government watchdog called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission last month alleging that Freedom Frontier violated federal campaign law by directing money into the 2016 campaign in such a way as to deliberately hide the identity of the donors.

It filed an identical complaint against a nonprofit called American Policy Council, which funneled nearly $2 million into a political action committee called SEALs for Truth, which in turn donated the cash to Greitens.

On the day the campaign received the contribution, it made two payments totaling a little more than $2 million to a media-buying firm affiliated with Ayers.

Barnes' complaint also accuses Greitens of violating state law by operating a shadow campaign without formally creating a candidate committee and of creating A New Missouri Inc. after he was elected governor solely for the purpose of skirting voter-imposed campaign donation limits and concealing the identities of donors.

Last week, The Star obtained emails that appear to show Gibbons arranging a meeting between a government official and a major donor, all while soliciting a contribution to A New Missouri Inc.

Democrats said the emails were evidence of illegal coordination between the governor's office, his campaign and his nonprofit. The emails also were included in Barnes’ complaint.

Catherine Hanaway, the attorney for Greitens’ campaign and his nonprofit, did not respond to a request for comment by The Star. But in an email to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she said Barnes’ complaint was “full of false accusations.”

Reps. Gina Mitten and Tommie Pierson — Democratic members of the House investigative committee — released a joint statement Tuesday saying the “disgraced former governor and his henchmen cannot be allowed to escape accountability for their alleged illegal actions.”

“With the ethics complaint that has been filed based on the work of the House investigative committee,” the statement said, “the Missouri Ethics Commission has overwhelming evidence to conclude that Eric Greitens, his campaign committee and affiliated dark money organization broke state campaign finance laws."

The Star's Lindsay Wise contributed to this story.