The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee filed a lawsuit on Monday against the Missouri attorney general’s office, alleging that under U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley it violated the state’s open records laws.
The lawsuit seeks an order from Cole County Circuit Court declaring that attorney general’s office under Hawley violated the Sunshine Law when it withheld emails between Hawley’s official staff and his political consultants during the 2018 Senate campaign.
The suit also asks the court to impose civil penalties against the attorney general’s office for “knowingly and purposely” violating the Sunshine Law. And the DSCC wants the office to pay its attorney’s costs.
The Missouri Attorney General’s office, now led by Republican Eric Schmitt, said in an email to The Star that it is “dedicated to preserving, protecting, and enforcing the Missouri Sunshine Law, and we work every day to ensure that Sunshine Law requests are handled properly and efficiently.”
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“We will review the lawsuit,” said Schmitt’s spokesman, Chris Nuelle, “but have nothing further to add at this time.”
A spokeswoman for Hawley, Kelli Ford, called the lawsuit a joke.
“The Democrat Senatorial Campaign Committee has teamed up with Claire McCaskill’s personal lawyer to file yet another frivolous political suit,” Ford said, referring to the fact that one of the lawyers representing DSCC in the lawsuit is Perkins Coie attorney Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic lawyer who has done work for McCaskill in the past.
“This is the 11th political complaint filed against Josh Hawley over the last two and a half years and not a single one has been successful,” Ford said.
Democrats lost the 2018 election, she added. “Accept it.”
The DSCC lawsuit focuses on a records request the group made in September 2017 for any communications between Hawley’s attorney general office and the consultants running his campaign.
Hawley’s office denied the request in a letter to the DSCC in October 2017. In the letter, Daniel Hartman, Hawley’s custodian of records at the time, said the attorney general’s office “searched our records and found no responsive records.”
But as The Kansas City Star would report a year later, such communications did, in fact, exist. Hartman was among those copied on private emails between Hawley’s attorney general staff and his consultants during the time period covered by the DSCC’s September 2017 request.
Hartman eventually became Hawley’s chief of staff in the attorney general’s office before joining his Senate staff as state director.
Hartman told The Star last month that Hawley’s attorney general office made every effort to comply with Missouri’s open records law, also known as the Sunshine Law.
As attorney general, Hawley was responsible for enforcing the Sunshine Law in Missouri, and he championed a push in the state legislature to strengthen it.
“Each determination under the Sunshine Law was made carefully and in good faith,” Hartman told The Star in a statement on Feb. 1.
In its lawsuit, the DSCC alleges that “Hartman knew, or should have known, that responsive records existed, some of which were stored in Hartman’s and other employees’ personal email accounts.”
Hartman and other members of Hawley’s attorney general staff used private email accounts to communicate about public business with political consultants Timmy Teepell and Gail Gitcho, who would go on to run Hawley’s successful Senate campaign against Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill.
As The Star reported in October, the consultants gave direct guidance and tasks to Hawley’s taxpayer-funded staff and led meetings during work hours in the state Supreme Court building, where the attorney general’s official office is located.
Records confirming The Star’s reporting were released to Secretary of state Jay Ashcroft’s office after Hawley was elected to the U.S. Senate in November.
The DSCC’s suit argues that the attorney general’s office under Hawley “knowingly and purposely” violated the Sunshine Law by failing to produce any documents to DSCC in response to its request in September 2017, when Hartman stated that there were no responsive records.
The DSCC made another records request in March 2018 for all communications to or from Hawley’s campaign and the political consulting firm OnMessage Inc., as well as any communications with Brad Todd, Scott Paradise, Kelli Ford, Kyle Plotkin or Gail Gitcho, all of whom worked with Hawley’s Senate campaign.
“In response, the AG’s Office claimed that it found no such records, and to this day has yet to produce a single, responsive document to DSCC,” according to the suit.
“The AG’s Office clearly possessed documents responsive to (the September 2017 request),” the suit argues, “and was able to locate and produce them to the Secretary of State within four days of the Secretary’s commencement of an investigation into former Attorney General Hawley’s alleged use of public funds to support his campaign for U.S. Senate.”
The DSCC previously sued Hawley’s attorney general office in July 2018 in an attempt to force the release of internal correspondence related to the creation of a public corruption team and information about Hawley’s homes in Jefferson City and Columbia.
The attorney general’s office had denied the DSCC’s requests, saying such records were exempt from disclosure. The suit was voluntarily dismissed by the DSCC in November 2018.
Any legal battle that may unfold over Hawley’s adherence to open records laws will take place as Missouri state lawmakers weigh proposed legislation that could severely restrict the kinds of records considered public under the state’s Sunshine Laws.
For years, the Republican leadership in the Missouri General Assembly argued they were exempt from the Sunshine Law.
In 2018 Missourians voted overwhelmingly to enact a constitutional amendment that included a mandate that the records of state lawmakers be subject to open records laws.
Since then, efforts to limit the kinds of records that could be made public have gained momentum.
Under a proposal approved by the Missouri House, any records that shed light on deliberations or decision-making could be closed. So could emails from constituents.
The legislation extended the limitations on open records to local city councils, school boards, planning and zoning commissions and law enforcement.
A more narrowly focused Senate bill would close close the same records but only for the legislature.