Political consultants’ role in Hawley’s AG office raise concerns
The attorney general’s office under Sen. Josh Hawley didn’t attempt to retain private emails between his government staff and his political consultants until nearly two months after The Star revealed their existence — and more than a year after his office denied a formal request for those emails under Missouri’s Sunshine Law.
The timeline of how these private emails were handled came into focus for the first time last week, after the attorney general’s office asked a Cole County judge to throw out a lawsuit filed by Democrats alleging Hawley’s office violated open records laws by refusing to turn them over following an October 2017 request.
The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee was told by the attorney general’s office at the time that it didn’t have any emails to turn over. But shortly before Hawley was elected to the U.S. Senate last fall, The Star reported that Hawley’s taxpayer-funded staff had regularly communicated with his political consultants using private email, not government accounts that would have automatically been subject to the Sunshine Law.
The consultants were brought in by Hawley shortly after he became attorney general to help run his office. The email conversations included discussion of policies, upcoming events, staffing and the office’s agenda for the year.
Transparency advocates say the refusal to turn over those records, then reversing course after the emails were publicly proven to exist, raises red flags.
Dave Roland, director of litigation with the libertarian legal advocacy nonprofit Freedom Center of Missouri, said the situation paints a picture of the attorney general’s office trying to hide the emails until it got caught.
“Have you ever seen ‘The Princess Bride?’” Roland asked. “It’s like when they’re storming the castle and demand the gate key, and the guy says ‘I have no gate key.’ ‘Tear his arms off.’ ‘Oh, you mean this gate key.’ That’s basically what appears to be happening here.”
The attorney general’s office, now under the direction of Attorney General Eric Schmitt, argues the emails were never required to be retained in the first place.
They were eventually retained between Dec. 14 and 21 of last year, Schmitt’s spokesman told The Star, only because Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft was investigating a complaint alleging Hawley misused state resources for his political campaign.
“It is our understanding that the then-attorney general’s office wanted to ensure that the secretary of state had all the information needed to conduct a thorough investigation,” said Chris Nuelle, Schmitt’s press secretary. “Therefore, even though they felt that they were not under legal obligation to do so, and out of an abundance of caution, they went back and asked the staff to retrieve those personal email account documents.”
The process of collecting the emails began the same day Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, agreed to use her office’s subpoena power to assist Ashcroft with his investigation.
Ashcroft never ended up using Galloway’s subpoena power, and after a three-month probe he concluded that Hawley hadn’t violated election law. Galloway is still conducting her own audit of the attorney general’s office.
Hawley has consistently said the interactions between his political consultants and his taxpayer-funded staff were focused on public business, not campaign matters.
When the use of private email by Hawley’s government staff was first revealed, the attorney general’s office told The Star its policy was 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.”
Among the attorney general staff members taking part in the private email discussions was Daniel Hartman, the office’s custodian of records.
Hartman responded to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee’s request in 2017 with a letter stating, “we have searched our records and found no responsive records.”
He currently serves as state director of Hawley’s Senate office.
In a statement issued earlier this year, Hartman denied any wrongdoing, saying every records request involved a “diligent search of (the attorney general’s office) records to determine responsiveness” and “a rigorous analysis of whether any of the numerous factors set out in Chapter 610 applied.”
“Each determination under the Sunshine Law,” Hartman said, “was made carefully and in good faith.”
Jean Maneke, the Missouri Press Association’s attorney who worked with Hawley last year on legislation aimed at strengthening the Sunshine Law, said there’s little question the emails fall under the definition of public records that should have been retained and turned over upon request.
“I find it hard to believe the chief enforcer of the Sunshine Law would believe that a ‘summary of an action plan’ related to office initiatives would not be considered a public record,” she said, later adding: “Does this then allow the public body to decline to retain records on a regular basis that they don’t want made public?”
Although the emails were retrieved in mid December, a request by The Star for any communication involving or mentioning Hawley’s consultants during that time did not produce any relevant records.
Nuelle said that’s because “the emails in question were printed off of each individual’s private accounts and then scanned into the record. The manner in which they were retrieved did not produce any additional documents, based on the office’s determination at that time.”
The attorney general’s office is tasked with enforcing the Sunshine Law, Roland said, and for it to “even appear to be trying to dodge transparency causes people to question the system itself. We have to trust that the people enforcing our laws are themselves diligent in being accountable to those laws.”
McClatchy’s Lindsay Wise contributed to this story.