Out-of-state political consultants helped direct Josh Hawley’s Missouri AG office

Josh Hawley pledged to Missouri voters in 2016 that he was not the kind of career politician who would use “one office to get to another.”

But within weeks of Hawley’s swearing in as the state’s top law enforcement official, the high-powered political team that would go on to run his U.S. Senate campaign had stepped in to help direct the office of the Missouri attorney general — and raise his national profile.

Hawley’s out-of-state political consultants gave direct guidance and tasks to his taxpayer-funded staff, and followed up to ensure the tasks were completed, according to emails, text messages and other records obtained by The Kansas City Star.

Early in Hawley’s tenure, for example, emails sent by the consultants to state staff laid out plans to shape the attorney general’s image and agenda for the year ahead.

As the months went on, Hawley’s political consultants flew to Missouri for official events and to meet with the attorney general’s staff during work hours in the state Supreme Court building, where the 38-year-old Republican’s official office is located.

The campaign-led strategy sessions, which began in January 2017, raised legal and ethical concerns at the time among some of Hawley’s employees, who worried about mixing politics with public business. The situation also left them confused about the chain of command.

The political consultants and Hawley’s attorney general staff used private email accounts to help organize at least some of these meetings, and to follow up afterward.

Topics discussed by the attorney general’s staff in private emails included official business such as the budget, staffing decisions, and how to roll out major policy initiatives against sex trafficking and opioid abuse.

“The idea that Hawley would turn over his attorney general’s office to D.C. campaign consultants strikes me as very problematic,” said Brendan Fischer, director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center’s federal reform program. “The attorney general’s office has an enormous amount of responsibility for protecting the health and welfare of citizens of the state.”

Hawley’s attorney general office did not respond to repeated requests for comment. His Senate campaign declined to comment.

The campaign presence in Hawley’s official office is in stark contrast to the image he projected during his 2016 race for attorney general.

A newcomer to politics, Hawley aired a TV ad during his successful 2016 campaign for attorney general that showed men in suits scaling ladders as Hawley, standing squarely on the ground, said he was running to serve the people of Missouri and not his own political ambitions.

“Jefferson City is full of career politicians just trying to climb the ladder, using one office to get another,” Hawley said. “I think you deserve better.”

In his victory speech to supporters on election night in November 2016, Hawley cast his win as the start of a new era in which political consultants would no longer wield such influence in Missouri’s government.

“To the political establishment in Jefferson City, those of you, consultants and the lobbyists and the professional political class who’ve gotten used to running our state — your day is over, business as usual is done,” he said to cheers.

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The meetings and calls with members of the attorney general’s senior staff were led by Timmy Teepell, a partner with OnMessage Inc., the Washington-area consulting firm that had worked on Hawley’s attorney general campaign.

Another consultant, Gail Gitcho, took charge of a national communications strategy for Hawley, even though he was still nearly four years away from facing re-election as attorney general. Gitcho is a veteran of the presidential campaigns of Republicans Mitt Romney and John McCain.

The arrangement left some state-paid staffers confused about whether they answered to political consultants Teepell and Gitcho or to the attorney general’s chief of staff.

In one email sent Jan. 19, 2017, to members of Hawley’s campaign and official staff, for example, Teepell tells the group he enjoyed “a brainstorming session” earlier in the week. Hawley was inaugurated on Jan. 9, 2017.

“Josh has put together a strong team, and I’m excited about the opportunities we have to make a difference this year,” Teepell writes.

“It seems to me that going forward we should start compiling a punch list of what we need to do to roll out each of our agenda items this year, and we should put together a weekly conference call for all of us to set aside time each week to focus attention on these projects,” he says, and asks if the call can be scheduled so that Hawley can participate.

Gitcho responds that she is “having lunch with Chris Wallace on Thursday and was going to pitch Josh as power player of the week — but we should all get on the same page with that before I pitch him.” Wallace hosts Fox News Sunday.

Some of the agenda items discussed in later correspondence included Missouri’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, which Hawley announced in June 2017, and a state effort to target human traffickers, an initiative Hawley unveiled in April 2017.

Hawley’s future opponent, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, already had launched Senate investigations into the opioid industry and online sex trafficking earlier that year.

Gitcho tweeted The Star’s story about Hawley’s opioid lawsuit on June 21, 2017, praising it as an example of “more great work” from Hawley.

The attorney general’s investigation into the marketing practices of 10 pharmaceutical companies is ongoing. And while Hawley has pointed to law enforcement officers raiding more than a dozen Springfield massage parlors last summer looking for evidence of sex trafficking, no one has been charged locally with any felony crime.

Having campaign staff run meetings on government property does not necessarily run afoul of Missouri law, as long as the meetings were not explicitly political. If the meetings were campaign focused, however, they could violate a constitutional prohibition on use of state resources for personal or political purposes.

Hawley’s attorney general office did not respond to The Star’s request for a copy of its official policy regarding political activity by state-paid employees or the use of office resources for political or campaign activity.

In August 2017, Hawley announced a federal exploratory committee for a possible Senate run against McCaskill, who is seeking her third term. They face each other Tuesday.

In the meantime, both Teepell and Gitcho stayed on Hawley’s state campaign payroll, flying to Missouri for meetings at the Supreme Court building and official events with staffers working in Hawley’s AG office, records reviewed by The Star show.

There are no records of either consultant being paid or reimbursed with state funds.

Teepell is a partner with OnMessage Inc. and Gitcho is president of First Tuesday. Both firms are listed at the same address in Annapolis, Md.

Campaign finance records show that Hawley for Missouri, his state campaign committee, reimbursed First Tuesday and OnMessage for travel expenses on seven different occasions in 2017. The campaign reimbursed both firms a combined total of $7,834 for travel expenses in 2017. In all, both firms were paid a total of $110,494 from Jan. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2017.

The six-figure spending on OnMessage and First Tuesday accounted for roughly a third of the $337,382 total that Hawley for Missouri spent through the first three quarters of 2017. Other expenditures included fees for the political consulting firm Mine Creek Strategies, and The KAM Co., a political fundraising firm.

In all, Hawley spent less from his state campaign account than his Democratic predecessor Chris Koster’s campaign spent — $351,937 — in the first three quarters following Koster’s election to his first term as attorney general in 2008. Although Koster used some of those funds for consulting, much of it was for travel and meal expenses.

Both Hawley and Koster spent far more than Democrat Jay Nixon did in the first three quarters of his last term in 2005. Nixon’s total was $82,503.

Under Missouri law, elected officials can tap into their campaign cash to pay for expenses incurred in connection with their official duties.

It’s unclear whether Hawley participated in any of the meetings between his official staff and political consultants, or in private email discussions with his official staff.

The attorney general’s office, which enforces the state’s open records laws, previously told The Star that Hawley does not conduct public business on any private email account.

In response to a request for copies of any emails sent or received by Hawley pertaining to public business using a private email address, the attorney general’s office said none existed.

Hawley also does not use his government email account.

Had the attorney general or his staff used their official government email addresses to discuss the meetings and calls with Hawley’s campaign, their correspondence would automatically have been subject to public release through the state’s open records laws, also known as the Sunshine Laws.

Even if they used private accounts, the attorney general’s office’s own record retention policy is clear that those emails would still be considered public record. When he was running for attorney general, Hawley slammed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for using a private server to send and receive emails as secretary of state.

“Sec. Clinton’s outrageous conduct & lack of prosecution shows we need an AG who knows how to win for the rule of law,” he tweeted on July 5, 2016.

Wise reported from Washington, D.C., Hancock reported from Jefferson City, Mo., and Vockrodt reported from Kansas City, Mo.

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise, lwise@mcclatchydc.com