Government & Politics

Missouri GOP demands that Ashcroft staffer leading Hawley investigation recuse herself

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft File photo/AP

The Missouri Republican Party is demanding that the attorney leading Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s investigation into Attorney General Josh Hawley recuse herself because of donations she previously made to Democratic candidates.

Both Ashcroft and Hawley are Republicans.

Last week, Ashcroft’s office launched a formal investigation into allegations that Hawley illegally used public resources to support his political campaign.

Khristine Heisinger, Ashcroft’s deputy general counsel, is leading that investigation.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Wednesday that Heisinger has contributed at least $24,000 to Democratic candidates since 2006, including $750 to Hawley’s opponent for attorney general in 2016 and $2,750 to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2012.

Hawley defeated McCaskill last month and will resign as attorney general when he is sworn in as a U.S. Senator in January.

Heisinger has not donated any money to candidates since taking her job with Ashcroft in 2017.

“To say there’s a conflict of interest would be a gross understatement, and the fact that she didn’t recuse herself from this investigation immediately is cause for concern,” Chris Nuelle, spokesman for the Missouri GOP, said in an email statement.

Ashcroft released a statement saying he has “the utmost confidence in Khris. She is an excellent attorney who takes her responsibility to serve the people of Missouri in a nonpartisan manner very seriously.”

The Missouri GOP’s decision to jump into the growing fissure between two of the state’s top Republican officeholders comes after Ashcroft sought assistance in the investigation on Monday from Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat.

Ashcroft wants Galloway’s help because her office has subpoena power.

Shortly after the Missouri GOP called for her recusal, a Republican source sent The Star a screenshot of a Facebook post showing Heisinger saying she was “mad” about the Hobby Lobby decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed certain private companies to claim a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive requirement. Hawley was involved in that case prior to running for attorney general.

The investigation was sparked by a complaint filed in early November with the secretary of state’s office by The American Democracy Legal Fund, a liberal group backed by influential Democratic operative David Brock. The group demanded an investigation to determine whether Hawley should be prosecuted for violating a state law barring elected officials from using public funds to support political campaigns.

The complaint cited a report by The Kansas City Star in October that out-of-state political consultants who would go on to run Hawley’s Senate campaign gave direct guidance and tasks to taxpayer-funded staff in the attorney general’s office, and also worked to raise Hawley’s national profile. The consultants led meetings with official staff during work hours in the state Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, where the attorney general’s office is located.

The arrangement raised concerns among some of Hawley’s employees about the mixing of politics with public business. They also became confused about the chain of command in the attorney general’s office.

Under Missouri law, elected officials can tap into their campaign cash to pay for expenses incurred in connection with their official duties. But both state and federal law prohibits any use of public funds for personal or political purposes.

John Sauer, first assistant and solicitor in Hawley’s office, responded to Ashcroft’s investigation Monday evening with a lengthy rebuttal of the American Democracy Legal Fund, calling the organization “leftist” and their complaint “a frivolous act of political harassment.”

Sauer has previously donated $10,816 Hawley’s attorney general campaign and $5,400 to his senate campaign.