Government & Politics

‘Astonishing development’: Hawley AG office may have violated Mo. open records laws

Not long after Josh Hawley announced in 2017 that he was exploring a U.S. Senate run, Democrats requested records of any emails between his attorney general’s office and the consultants running his campaign.

Hawley’s office told them they didn’t have any emails to turn over.

But the emails did exist.

The revelation that Democrats made a records request and that Hawley’s office denied it — uncovered in documents newly obtained by The Star — is now leading advocates for government transparency to question whether Hawley and his staff failed to comply with the state’s Sunshine Laws.

“It’s an astonishing development,” said Mark Pedroli, a St. Louis attorney and founder of the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project. “This appears to be a full-fledged conspiracy by government officials to communicate off government servers for the purpose of concealing government records from the public. They actively concealed documents until their hands were forced.”

Daniel Hartman, Hawley’s former custodian of records and chief of staff at the attorney general’s office, said Friday that every effort had been made to fully comply with Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

“For every request, the Office engaged in a diligent search of its records to determine responsiveness, and conducted a rigorous analysis of whether any of the numerous factors set out in Chapter 610 applied,” said Hartman, who now is the state director of Hawley’s Senate office. “Each determination under the Sunshine Law was made carefully and in good faith.”

The decision by Hawley’s AG office to use private email rather than government accounts was first uncovered by The Star, which reported in October that his staff was using the private accounts to communicate with his out-of-state consultants. The Star’s investigation found that Hawley’s campaign consultants Timmy Teepell and Gail Gitcho gave direct guidance and tasks to his taxpayer-funded staff and led meetings during work hours in the state Supreme Court building, where the attorney general’s official office is located.

After that reporting, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, with the help of State Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, launched an investigation to determine whether Hawley illegally used state resources in the attorney general’s office to support his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate.

It was in response to Ashcroft’s investigation that the attorney general’s office turned over 85 pages of records shortly before Christmas — documents that confirmed The Star’s reporting.

Those records included numerous emails involving Teepell and Hawley’s government staff communicating about public business via private email accounts — not their government-issued email accounts that would have automatically been subject to public disclosure under Missouri’s open records laws.

Those same records were turned over to The Star in response to its own open records request on Dec. 31, after Hawley was elected.

But those files were not turned over in September 2017, when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee filed an open records request asking the attorney general’s office for “correspondence with the firm OnMessage Inc., including any employees or representatives of the organization.”

Teepell is a partner with OnMessage Inc., a Washington, D.C.-area political consulting firm that had worked on Hawley’s attorney general campaign and would go on to work for Hawley’s successful campaign for U.S. Senate in 2018.

Hartman, who was at the time serving as special counsel for the attorney general’s office and later became Hawley’s chief of staff, responded to the Democrats’ request in October 2017, saying, “we have searched our records and found no responsive records.”

Among the records that weren’t turned over to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee were email conversations where Teepell gave directions to members of Hawley’s taxpayer-funded staff using his OnMessageInc.com email address. Those records were eventually released to the secretary of state’s office after The Star’s story published a year later and after Hawley was elected to the U.S. Senate in November.

Two other employees of Teepell’s consulting firm also show up in those documents using their OnMessageInc.com email address.

Among the Hawley staffers involved in these private email exchanges was Hartman, who would go on to join Hawley’s Senate staff as state director in late November.

“Hawley used his taxpayer-funded office to run for Senate, and protected himself from public scrutiny by skirting Sunshine Laws. It’s wrong and Hawley owes his constituents an explanation,” said Lauren Passalacqua, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Mark Johnson, a lawyer for the Dentons law firm in Kansas City whose practice includes First Amendment and public records matters, said that under the Missouri Sunshine Law, there’s a “big difference” between public agencies telling someone requesting records that they don’t have the records, versus acknowledging that they do and they’re not required to disclose it.

“If they tell you right out of the box that we don’t have anything, I view that as a violation of law if that turns out not to be true,” Johnson said. “The thing that it didn’t say is whether they found the stuff by looking further and at the time they told you they didn’t have anything they honestly didn’t believe it. That would have to be something that would have to be established.”

David Roland, director of litigation with the Freedom Center of Missouri, a libertarian nonprofit that advocates for government transparency, said there may be explanations for the behavior that would not be a violation of the Sunshine Law.

It’s also possible, Roland said, that “the attorney general’s office unlawfully withheld the records in regard to the September 2017 request, but it is not certain that they did so.”

Yet if the office’s policy was that every record be retained, even on private email accounts, Roland said, “that would seem to be the clincher.”

The attorney general’s office has previously told The Star “our office policy is to retain all records required by law regardless of the medium of the communication” and “personal emails are subject to the same retention and disclosure requirements as those on public accounts.”

The rejected records request from 2017 resurfaced late last month when it was turned over by the attorney general’s office along with more than 5,000 pages of other documents to Pedroli, who was seeking records of potential use of the self-destructing text message app Confide in the attorney general’s office.

Pedroli filed an open records lawsuit against former Gov. Eric Greitens in 2017 over his use of Confide. His records request came in response to a report by The Star in November revealing that Hawley’s former chief of staff used the app.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican who replaced Hawley when he became a U.S. senator, declined comment.

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 U.S. 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.

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Jason Hancock is The Star’s lead political reporter, providing coverage of government and politics on both sides of the state line. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he has written about politics for more than a decade for news organizations across the Midwest.
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.
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