Before stepping down as Missouri’s attorney general, new U.S. Sen. Josh Josh Hawley formally ended a pair of long-running investigations involving former Gov. Eric Greitens.
But his eight-month-old inquiry into whether Greitens improperly used taxpayer-funded staff to create content for his campaign’s social media accounts remains unresolved.
And it appears that Hawley, sworn in Thursday in Washington, D.C., made little progress.
His critics, who argue that he previously let Greitens off the hook with a tepid investigation of the former governor’s use of the self-destructing text message app Confide, say they are hopeful the new attorney general, Eric Schmitt (R), will finally bring the inquiry to a close.
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It’s important the investigation move forward, said state Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty. Though Greitens may no longer be in office, Ellebracht says Missourians deserve a full accounting of any potential misconduct while he was governor.
“We are talking about our tax dollars being spent, and public employees being used, to create social-media content and push a specifically partisan political agenda that masquerades as official government policy,” Ellebracht said. “It’s theft, the theft of government resources and the theft of our ability to trust that our elected officials will do what’s best for Missourians.”
At the heart of Hawley’s unresolved probe is an email, obtained by The Star, showing one of Greitens’ taxpayer-funded state employees helping craft a post during work hours for a Facebook page Greitens repeatedly argued was not his official government account.
Hawley, who announced that he was launching an investigation shortly after The Star made him aware of the email, quickly filed an expansive open records request demanding a cache of documents spanning Greitens’ 17 months in office.
Thus far, the only records turned over to the the attorney general’s office by Gov. Mike Paron’s office are from January 2017.
Catherine Hanaway, the attorney representing Greitens’ campaign committee and several of his former staffers, said Hawley’s office never reached out to her or her clients.
“We’ve not been contacted about that,” she said, adding that she was in “pretty regular contact” with the attorney general’s office during other investigations involving Greitens. “It’s not like they can’t find my phone number.”
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said last month that the inquiry is ongoing because “there remains relevant evidence that we have not yet received.”
The Star filed its own, far more narrow, request for records in October.
Those records, provided to The Star by the governor’s office, show numerous instances where Greitens’ taxpayer-funded staff helped create content for social media pages the former governor had long insisted were his personal and campaign accounts.
Greitens leaned heavily on social media during his tenure as governor to get out his message while avoiding the press.
But even while it appeared that he was using these social media accounts to conduct public business – from official announcements to Q&A’s with Missourians in his state Capitol office – the governor’s office argued Greitens’ Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were not “official” state accounts, and thus not subject to the Sunshine Law.
Greitens had only one set of Facebook and Twitter accounts until September 2017 — nine months after he entered office. That is when news organizations sought records on the number of users blocked, a history of direct messages and information related to the accounts’ creation.
In response, aides created new accounts deemed “official.”
Hawley initially agreed with Greitens that the original Facebook and Twitter were not subject to open records laws. He changed his mind in April after The Star began asking questions about a Jan. 19, 2017, email from Parker Briden, who served as press secretary for the governor’s office under Greitens.
Briden shared a draft of a social media post in which the governor boasted about the deal secured for a soccer stadium in St. Louis. That email was forwarded a week later to other members of the governor’s taxpayer-funded staff, including chief of staff Mike Roche, policy director Will Scharf and then-communications adviser Jimmy Soni.
Also copied on the email were two people connected to Greitens’ campaign who are not public employees: Austin Chambers, a senior adviser who ran the dark money nonprofit A New Missouri Inc., and Mark Bobak, a St. Louis lawyer and a longtime friend who served on the governor’s campaign leadership team.
The Jan. 19, 2017, email was not an isolated event.
According to records obtained by The Star, during the nine months after his inauguration when he had only one set of social media accounts, Greitens’ staff regularly created and published content on his Facebook page during work hours.
On Jan. 10, 2017, Soni emailed Briden and Chambers a draft of a Facebook post about an executive order Greitens was set to issue.
Days later, Briden sent Chambers the draft of a script for a video on the state budget Greitens would record and post to Facebook. A second email shows Briden informing Greitens’ senior government staff and Chambers that he was about to post the video, which appears to show he was also operating the governor’s Facebook page.
A few weeks later, Briden sent a draft Facebook post to Chambers about an ordinance passed in St. Louis regarding abortion.
The Star obtained these emails through an open records request to the governor’s office seeking correspondence sent or received by Chambers in 2017 and 2018.
Although not a state employee, Chambers was highly involved in the early months of the Greitens administration, helping craft the governor’s public statements and press releases, as well as respond to media inquiries. He was also regularly consulted on scheduling and policy matters
Chambers’ involvement appeared to taper off as 2017 wore on. The number of emails turned over to The Star by the governor’s office dwindled from mid-2017 through Greitens’ resignation in June 2018.
Confide and consultants
Hawley finished his final weeks as attorney general under investigation by Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft over allegations similar to those leveled against Greitens — that he used public resources to support his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate.
The investigation followed a report by The Star in October that revealed out-of-state political consultants who subsequently ran Hawley’s Senate campaign gave direct guidance and tasks to his taxpayer-funded staff. The consultants led meetings during work hours in the state Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, where the attorney general’s office is located.
Both state and federal law prohibits any use of public funds for personal or political purposes.
Hawley has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
Further complicating his Greitens inquiry is the fact that he’s been regularly criticized over his handling of an earlier investigation into whether Greitens evaded the state’s open records laws by using the text-deleting app Confide.
In that inquiry, Hawley’s office never submitted a written request for records to the governor’s office and acceded to Greitens’ demand that interviews with staff members who used Confide be limited to 15 minutes. Hawley’s investigators never tried to interview Greitens, and never attempted a forensic examination of staff phones.
The investigation concluded with a report clearing Greitens of any wrongdoing.
A lawsuit filed by St. Louis attorneys Mark Pedroli and Ben Sansone eventually determined that nearly everyone in the governor’s office had a Confide account. That included Greitens, who admitted as part of that lawsuit to using Confide to communicate with his staff.
Text messages obtained from the governor’s office showed Greitens’ staff openly discussing the use of Confide, not only among themselves but with people outside the governor’s office. They also appeared to show staff discussing the use of Confide to conduct public business.
With a new attorney general in place, Pedroli said he hopes the allegations regarding Greitens social media use will finally get a thorough investigation.
“The use of state resources for campaign related work is serious,” Pedroli said, “and the state must have zero tolerance for violations.”
Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock