Editorials

Did Hawley’s use of political consultants break state law? It’s up to Ashcroft to find out

Trump stops in mid-Missouri to campaign for Josh Hawley

Supporters of President Donald Trump came out to the Columbia Regional Airport for a "Make America Great Again" rally in Columbia, Mo., Thursday. Trump campaigned for Josh Hawley, candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri.
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Supporters of President Donald Trump came out to the Columbia Regional Airport for a "Make America Great Again" rally in Columbia, Mo., Thursday. Trump campaigned for Josh Hawley, candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft should launch an investigation and definitively determine whether outgoing Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley broke the law and used public funds to support his political campaign.

According to emails, text messages and other records, a team of political consultants gave directives to taxpayer-funded staff inside the attorney general’s office, as Hawley appeared to allow public business to mix with his political aspirations — a potentially illegal arrangement.

Taxpayers now have the right to know whether public dollars were used for political purposes and whether Hawley’s staff flouted open records laws by using their personal email addresses to organize and discuss meetings. Documents obtained by The Star amount to a damning paper trail that details the extent of political consultants’ involvement in the attorney general’s office — and demands further investigation.

Missouri lawmakers have given the secretary of state the authority to investigate possible violations of the ban on the use of taxpayer funds for political or personal purposes. So, the onus now is on Ashcroft to act.

It’s legal for elected officials in Missouri to spend campaign cash on expenses incurred in connection with their official duties. But they cannot siphon public funds to support political campaigns. The use of public funds for personal or political purposes is also prohibited under federal law.

Hawley’s office has denied that government employees participated in campaign or political activities, calling a complaint filed by a group with Democratic ties a partisan hack job. The organization, American Democracy Legal Fund, wants Ashcroft to determine if the senator-elect broke state or federal laws in the process.

So far, Ashcroft has been silent about a possible investigation into his fellow Republican’s use of taxpayer funds. He has until early December to decide how to proceed.

This should be an easy choice.

Ashcroft works for the people of Missouri, and it would be a dereliction of duty if he didn’t commit to finding the facts in this case and to determining whether any laws were broken.

Hawley, who defeated Sen. Claire McCaskill in this month’s election, will resign as attorney general in January and head to the U.S. Senate. But while his brief tenure in Jefferson City is ending, he should not escape scrutiny — or the consequences for potential misdeeds.

Hawley’s actions also will receive additional review from State Auditor Nicole Galloway. The auditor is required by law to conduct an audit of any statewide office after a transition. Galloway no doubt will focus on Hawley’s use of taxpayer funds and personnel.

But Ashcroft has a responsibility to act as well. He could make a powerful statement about the rule of law if he conducted a thorough and impartial investigation.

Missouri law is clear: Individuals are not allowed to use government resources to promote a candidate. Just as Ezra Reese, an attorney representing the American Democracy Legal Fund told The Star, there’s a bright line between officeholder resources and campaign resources. Hawley may have blurred those lines.

If, in fact, the soon-to-be former attorney general’s successful Senate campaign benefited from public resources intended for his state office, now is the time to rectify that and hold Hawley — and any other offending parties — accountable.

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