Government & Politics

Missouri AG seeks to dismiss suit alleging that office under Hawley broke Sunshine Law

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt asked a Cole County judge Monday to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Democrats alleging that under U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley the attorney general’s office knowingly violated the state’s open records laws.

The lawsuit, filed in March by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, (DSCC) seeks an order from Cole County Circuit Court declaring that on Hawley’s watch the office violated the Sunshine Law when it withheld emails between Hawley’s taxpayer-funded government staff and his political consultants during his 2018 Senate campaign.

The suit also asks the court to impose civil penalties against the attorney general’s office and require it to pay DSCC’s attorney’s costs.

In a motion to dismiss filed Monday afternoon, the attorney general’s office argues it was not required to retain the emails in question, calling them “transitory” correspondence.

It meant that the emails couldn’t be turned over, Schmitt’s office contends, because they were not required to be retained in the first place.

“These emails were received on private accounts, not (attorney general’s office) accounts, and thus they were not stored on (attorney general’s office) servers or retained by the (attorney general’s office),” Monday’s motion to dismiss says.

While the emails in question were never turned over to the DSCC, the attorney general’s office did eventually disclose them to The Star and the Missouri Secretary of State’s office in response to open records requests late last year.

It is our understanding that the office retrieved the messages prior to turning over to The Star and the SOS. At that point, they were retained,” a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said Monday.

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 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.

Shortly after he was sworn into office, Hawley’s staff began using private email rather than government accounts to communicate with out-of-state political consultants who would go on to run his successful campaign for U.S. Senate.

The Star’s investigation found that Hawley’s campaign consultants 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.

Hartman, who eventually became Hawley’s chief of staff and now serves as state director for his Senate office, was among those included in those private emails discussions during the period covered by the DSCC’s September 2017 request.

As attorney general, Hawley was responsible for enforcing the Sunshine Law in Missouri, and championed a push in the state legislature to strengthen it.

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.”

In February, a month after Schmitt took over for Hawley, the attorney general’s office amended its email policy to prohibit any use of private email accounts to conduct public business.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

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.