A Washington-based public interest group is considering its next steps after the Missouri Ethics Commission rejected its complaint against Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican and candidate for Missouri attorney general.
The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust — a nonprofit group known as FACT — filed the complaint against Schaefer earlier this month. It claims Schaefer improperly tried to pressure a University of Missouri official into making it harder for Josh Hawley, a law professor at the school, to run for attorney general.
Hawley and Schaefer are candidates in the GOP primary for the office. Schaefer says that he did not act improperly and that the complaint is politically motivated.
The Ethics Commission rejected the complaint because its subject matter falls outside the commission’s jurisdiction. Because the accusations may reflect criminal misconduct, it said, the complaint is a matter for prosecutors.
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“It does not feel as though we’re the correct venue for these types of allegations,” said James Klahr, executive director of the commission.
Kendra Arnold, a lawyer for FACT, said the group would consider the commission’s views before pursuing their complaints.
“We’re waiting for the written decision from the Ethics Commission before deciding what our next action would be,” Arnold said.
The group’s complaint has been forwarded to prosecutors in Boone County and Cole County and the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri, she said.
In a statement, Schaefer called the allegations “baseless.” He claimed FACT’s leadership is connected financially with groups associated with Hawley.
“Missouri citizens are entitled to know who is financing the election of their top law enforcement officer,” Schaefer’s statement said. “So far, professor Hawley and those financing his campaign against me are failing that test.”
The ethics complaint is the latest development in a story that has bubbled below the surface of Missouri politics for weeks.
In a private email disclosed earlier this year, former University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe claimed Schaefer — the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees university funding — had pressured him to make it harder for Hawley, a law school professor, to run for office.
“Kurt Schaefer had several meetings with me pressuring me to take away Josh Hawley’s right to run for Attorney General,” the email said. “When I questioned the fairness of this and I refused to budge on his right to run for office, he then asked me to get in the middle of the tenure decision for Mr. Hawley, which I refused as well.”
Schaefer has not denied talking with Wolfe but says the conversations were proper and meant to save taxpayer money. He wanted to make sure the university was following its own rules on how it handled tenure and leaves of absence when it came to Hawley, the senator has said.
At least two former U.S. attorneys who are unconnected with the complaints told The Star an investigation could be warranted. University funding from the legislature is considered “something of value” under the law, one former U.S. attorney said, as is elimination of political competition that Schaefer might face.
Any evidence of a direct trade of one for the other could point to a violation of the law.
“An investigation would have a salutary effect for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the senator may have done something criminally wrong or, just as importantly, done nothing wrong,” said Paul Charlton, who spent six years as the U.S. attorney for Arizona and 10 years as an assistant U.S. attorney.
Bud Cummins, a former U.S. attorney in Arkansas appointed by President George W. Bush, said in an email that “the offer of something of value in exchange for official action can constitute a federal crime under one of several statutes.”
It is not known whether any authorities are investigating the allegations for any criminal culpability.
Jake Zimmerman of Olivette and Teresa Hensley of Raymore are the Democratic candidates for Missouri attorney general.
The Star’s Steve Kraske contributed to this report.