Government & Politics

Josh Hawley used a state-owned car for campaign travel while attorney general

An employee of the Missouri attorney general’s office occasionally drove Josh Hawley to campaign-related events in a state-owned car, an arrangement that raises new questions about Hawley’s use of taxpayer-funded resources in the run up to his successful bid for U.S. Senate.

Hawley’s use of a state-owned car stands in contrast to how Missouri’s other statewide elected officials say they utilize such vehicles.

Both state and federal law prohibit any use of public resources for personal or political purposes, but government staffers generally are permitted to do political work on their own time.

A code of conduct manual for the attorney general’s office defines state resources as including “an employee’s position, time, benefits, state supplied materials, equipment and vehicles.”

There are no records of Hawley’s Missouri or federal campaigns reimbursing the state for use of a government-owned vehicle for political activity. Federal Election Commission filings do, however, show that Hawley’s Senate campaign paid the driver, a state employee, $437 in Sept. 2017 for “security / travel” services.

“The campaign paid what it was billed by the state,” Hawley’s spokeswoman, Kelli Ford, said in a statement to The Kansas City Star. “We’ve tallied up the incidental travel and if the state would like to send the campaign an invoice for the estimated $27 for the mileage traveled, we’re happy to pay it.”

Ford said the state employee’s work for Hawley’s campaign was “incidental to official AG duties,” and consistent with a similar practice under former Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster.

She said Hawley only used the state car and driver “a handful of times” to travel to political activities scheduled around the same time as official events.

Koster’s state campaign committee paid the same state employee $1,470.11 for travel expenses in 2014 and $344.98 for travel and security services in 2011, campaign filings show. David Turner, Koster’s former campaign spokesman, said any reimbursements were for non-official travel that took place in a personal or campaign vehicle, never a state-owned vehicle. The employee was always required to be off the clock.

Ford declined to provide invoices or exact dates and times of the services rendered to Hawley’s campaign by the state employee. But she acknowledged that some of the campaign-related travel took place before Hawley created a federal exploratory committee for his run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Hawley, a Republican, formed the committee in early August 2017, although GOP efforts to recruit him for the race date to at least April 2017. He officially announced he would run for Senate on Oct. 10, 2017.

“It was a clerical mistake,” Ford said of the Senate campaign’s payment for driving services prior to August 2017.

“The invoice came in after the Senate committee was started. The staffer who processed it didn’t look at the dates of the activity, just the date of the invoice,” she said, adding that $187.50 of the $437.50 due was for hours worked prior to the formation of the Senate committee. The $187.50 should have been paid out of Hawley’s now-defunct state campaign committee.

Hawley terminated his Missouri Attorney General campaign fund on Jan. 31. At the time, there was more than $1 million in cash on hand. Hawley’s campaign committee reimbursed several donors, most of it going to Missouri Republican mega-donor David Humphreys and his sister Sarah Atkins, who combined received more than $900,000 in refunds.

The previously unreported information — that a taxpayer-funded staffer transported Hawley to political activities in a state-owned car — comes as Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft investigates whether Hawley’s use of political consultants in his attorney general’s office violated Missouri’s prohibition on elected officials spending public funds to support political campaigns.

Ashcroft enlisted the help of Democratic State Auditor Nicole Galloway, whose office has subpoena power and is in the midst of a routine audit of the attorney general’s office under Hawley.

The use of state vehicles and drivers comes under scrutiny in such audits.

Asked if there is any permissible use of a state vehicle for personal or political travel, Scott Holste, Galloway’s spokesman, said the auditor’s office “has made it clear in the past that utilizing state vehicles to transport public officials to political events is improper.”

The improper use of state cars for political activity has sparked controversy before in Missouri. In 2007, while then-Attorney General Jay Nixon was running for governor, his campaign agreed to reimburse the state $47,022 for the political-related mileage on his state-owned car and the time his security staff spent at political events.

In a 2008 letter to Nixon, then-auditor Susan Montee identified an additional $8,618.40 Nixon’s campaign owed the state for use of the car and staff. Montee noted that there was no provision in Missouri law that allowed any state official to use state resources for non-official purposes, whether personal or political.

“Furthermore, there are no provisions that allow non-official use as long as there is appropriate reimbursement,” Montee wrote to Nixon, a fellow Democrat. “Thus, no state resource should be used for purposes other than official state business ... However, since you used state resources for activities that were personal or political, it appears appropriate that the state be reimbursed for such non-official use.”

A year before Montee’s letter to Nixon, she leveled similar criticism at then Gov. Matt Blunt and then-Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.

Kinder was using a state-owned vehicle for personal and political travel, then reimbursing the state. Blunt was using state-owned vehicles to travel between the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City and his private home in Springfield, as well as to campaign events around the state.

State law requires the Missouri State Highway Patrol to provide transportation and security for the governor, but no other statewide official.

Kinder made headlines again in 2011, when he reimbursed the state $52,000 after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed he’d billed taxpayers for more than 300 hotel stays in the St. Louis area, some of which were for political and personal business.

The most infamous use of state resources for political purposes came in 1993, when former Missouri Attorney General Bill Webster pleaded guilty to two federal felony charges of conspiracy and embezzling. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

The charges stemmed, in part, from Webster admitting to federal authorities that his employees in the attorney general’s office laid out and printed political materials on state time using state equipment in order to shave campaign expenses.

Current statewide elected officials in Missouri say they do not use state vehicles as Hawley did while he was attorney general.

A spokesman for Attorney General Eric Schmitt, Hawley’s successor, said he never uses a state vehicle for political business. If his schedule includes both political and official events, Schmitt uses his own car.

“The state vehicle is reserved for the Attorney General and executive staff, and anyone who uses the vehicle, Attorney General Schmitt included, is doing so for official business,” said spokesman Chris Nuelle.

Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe’s office said he only uses his own vehicle and is reimbursed for mileage for any official travel. Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick, also a Republican, has not had any official travel since taking office last month, but his spokeswoman said he plans to use his personal vehicle and get reimbursed for mileage.

The auditor’s office said it owns one vehicle and it is not used by Galloway.

Ashcroft’s spokeswoman said he rides in a state-owned vehicle for official travel, and sometimes has an aide with him. If there are both official and political events on the same day, he uses his personal vehicle. A staff person may volunteer to accompany him, but “that is not considered part of a regular work day as state employees are not allowed to attend campaign activities on state time.”

Ashcroft’s investigation into Hawley’s use of state resources came in response to an October report by The Kansas City Star that revealed out-of-state political consultants gave direct guidance and tasks to taxpayer-funded staff in the attorney general’s office. The consultants, who would go on to lead Hawley’s Senate campaign, led meetings with staff during business hours in the state Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, where the attorney general’s office is located.

Hawley’s political consultants communicated with attorney general staff about public business using private emails, a possible circumvention of open records laws. When the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee made open records requests in September 2017 for correspondence with Hawley’s political consultants, the attorney general’s office said such records did not exist.

More than a month later, after Hawley’s election in November 2018, the attorney general’s office released 85 pages of records that confirmed such emails did exist, as The Star had reported.

In a letter released with the records on Dec. 21, Hawley’s first assistant and solicitor John Sauer noted to Ashcroft’s office that that the consultants were not paid for by taxpayers.

As The Star reported in October, there’s no evidence that any taxpayer funds were used to pay Hawley’s political consultants. Their fees and travel expenses were covered by Hawley’s attorney general campaign committee until the creation of the Senate exploratory committee in August 2017.

“Missouri law explicitly authorizes and approves the use of state political committee resources to aid the effective functioning of a public office,” Sauer wrote, “and as these documents demonstrate, that is exactly what happened here.”

Sauer added that no public funds were ever expended by Hawley’s attorney general office for any political campaign.

“And no (attorney general’s office) staff,” he wrote, “participated in any campaign activity.”

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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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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.