Government & Politics

Records: Hawley’s AG office used private emails, consulted with political operatives

Political consultants’ role in Hawley’s AG office raise concerns

Consultants worked to raise Josh Hawley's national profile and helped direct the state office's work, records show.
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Consultants worked to raise Josh Hawley's national profile and helped direct the state office's work, records show.

Outgoing Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley on Friday released records that show public employees in his office used private email addresses for official business and frequently took direction from political consultants.

The 85 pages of records released by Hawley’s office confirm reporting by The Kansas City Star in October that Hawley’s attorney general staff frequently used private email in its communications with outside political consultants Gail Gitcho and Timmy Teepell.

The Star reported on Oct. 31 that Gitcho and Teepell, two political consultants who guided Hawley’s election to the U.S. Senate, became involved in operation of the attorney general’s office shortly after Hawley was sworn in in 2017.

In one example, an April 26, 2017 email from Teepell, a partner with political consultancy OnMessage, lays out several tasks for staff to accomplish, such as developing a target list of key legislators, a job description for a press secretary and coming up with a list of accomplishments.

“Our next meeting we will go over these items, but I want to spend the majority of the time brainstorming and fleshing out our Human Trafficking 2.0 plans, Opioid Plan, and Veteran Pro Bono plans,” Teepell’s email reads.

The records release Friday also constitutes an attempt to push back on an investigation into Hawley’s alleged abuse of state resources launched by the Missouri Secretary of State’s office.

John Sauer, first assistant and solicitor general for Hawley, sent the documents to the Missouri Secretary of State’s office on Friday along with a letter. Sauer said the records demonstrate Hawley did not use any taxpayer funds for political campaigns or outside consultants, and noted that under Missouri law, elected officials can use campaign cash to pay for expenses incurred in connection with their official duties.

He wrote that Ashcroft’s office “should dismiss the complaint as frivolous.”

The letter does not explain why Hawley’s staff was using private emails — a possible way to circumvent the open records laws he’s tasked with enforcing as attorney general. A spokesperson said Friday that transparency was not compromised by use of the private addresses.

“Personal emails are subject to the same retention and disclosure requirements as those on public accounts,” said Hawley’s spokeswoman Mary Compton in response to emailed questions from The Star on Friday. “All AGO Staff are trained and instructed to comply with the retention and disclosure requirements.”

Sauer’s correspondence with the Missouri Secretary of State’s office was meant to discredit a complaint filed in the days before the 2018 election by the liberal American Democracy Legal Fund. The group accused Hawley’s office of using public funds to support his successful Senate run against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.

In response to the complaint, Missouri’s GOP Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft launched an investigation earlier this month into fellow Republican Hawley’s use of state resources.

As The Star reported in October, public records showed no evidence of direct public expenditures going to Gitcho and Teepell. A 2010 code of conduct manual for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, however, defines state resources as, in part, “an employee’s position, time, benefits, state supplied materials, equipment and vehicles.”

Some of the meetings with political consultants occurred during normal business hours on weekdays.

The revelation that national political consultants were involved in Hawley’s office was in stark contrast to Hawley’s pledge during his 2016 campaign for attorney general, when he said that he was not the type of ladder-climbing politician who would continually seek higher office.

“Jefferson City is full of career politicians just trying to climb the ladder, using one office to get another,” Hawley said at the time. “I think you deserve better.”

Hawley also had criticized Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for sending and receiving emails while she was Secretary of State.

“Sec. Clinton’s outrageous conduct & lack of prosecution shows we need an AG who knows how to win for the rule of law,” he tweeted on July 5, 2016, as he was campaigning for attorney general.

Records released by Sauer include several email strings, conference call instructions and office calendars that describe meetings between political operatives and attorney general staff. Sauer’s letter indicated that he turned over two other sets of records — a personnel file and another document — that were protected from disclosure by state and federal law.

In a Jan. 19, 2017 email string, comprised entirely of private email addresses that sought to gather political consultants and office staff on a call, Teepell applauded Hawley’s team and said he was excited “about the opportunities we have to make a difference this year.”

“It seems to me that going forward we should start compiling a punch list of what we need to do to roll out each of our agenda items this year, and we should put together a weekly conference call for all of us to set aside time each week to focus attention on these projects,” Teepell wrote to Hawley’s former chief of staff Evan Rosell and other senior staffers in the attorney general’s office.

In a May 1, 2017 private email with the subject line “Follow up from Timmy’s visit,” Rosell reminded members of Hawley’s official staff of the tasks they’d been set.

The bullet-pointed list included official business, such as assignments to “develop a target list of local and key officials for intergovernmental affairs, develop a target list of coalition groups, find and hire a press secretary, review constituent services ... develop list of administration accomplishments,” write a job description for the special assistant to the AG, “develop list of key legislators for relational engagement over the summer” and “develop system for tracking legislative requests.”

Assignments given to taxpayer-paid lawyers included addressing “Next steps on Opioid front” and reviewing a “pro bono project.”

Rosell also noted that he’d been assigned to secure funding for a “Human Trafficking Coordinator” and “constituent services representative.”

Ashcroft’s office has authority to investigate election-related offenses, but lacks subpoena power. He has sought the cooperation of the Missouri Auditor’s office, which does have subpoena power, in its investigation.

Steve Vockrodt is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported in Kansas City since 2005. Areas of reporting interest include business, politics, justice issues and breaking news investigations. Vockrodt grew up in Denver and studied journalism at the University of Kansas.

Lindsay Wise is an investigative reporter for McClatchy’s Washington Bureau. Previously, Lindsay worked for six years as the Washington correspondent for McClatchy’s Kansas City Star. Before joining McClatchy in 2012, she worked as a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, where she specialized in coverage of veterans and military issues as well as the city’s Arab and Muslim communities.