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Under Josh Hawley, Missouri Attorney General's office broke transparency laws on purpose

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., wearing a blue suit and tan tie, sits in front of a microphone during a Senate hearing.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., poses questions during a Senate committee hearing in this file photo. A judge ruled on Monday that under Josh Hawley, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office “knowingly and purposefully” broke state public records laws.

A Cole County judge ordered the Missouri Attorney General to pay $12,000 in penalties for violating the Missouri Sunshine Law when it failed to turn over public records that were potentially embarrassing to then-attorney general Josh Hawley.

A judge ruled on Monday that the Missouri Attorney General’s Office “knowingly and purposefully” broke state public records laws when now-U.S. Senator Josh Hawley was in charge.

Cole County Judge Jon Beetem ordered the Missouri Attorney General to pay a $12,000 penalty for failing to turn over public records requested by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in 2017.

Beetem found that employees in the attorney general’s office used private email accounts to discuss public matters, and then tried to excuse themselves from producing those records by claiming they were not in the attorney general’s office’s custody.

The ruling is troublesome for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office because it has the responsibility to enforce the state’s public records law, known as the Sunshine Law. And the office’s policy prohibits its employees from conducting public business on private emails.

Yet that’s what Beetem found that employees of the Missouri Attorney General’s Office did when they corresponded about public business on private email addresses with political consultants hired by Hawley as he prepared to launch a bid for U.S. Senate in 2018.

“[T]he fact that this public business was conducted through and stored on private email accounts — in direct contravention of the AGO’s official policies prohibiting AGO employees from conducting public business on private emails … — is itself evidence of ‘a conscious design, intent, or plan’ to conceal these controversial records from public view,’” Beetem wrote in a ruling on Monday.

Hawley himself in 2016 criticized Hillary Clinton for her use of a private server to store emails during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Mark Pedroli, a St. Louis attorney who represented the DSCC in its lawsuit against the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, said on social media that Beetem’s ruling was a victory for public transparency.

“Attorney General Hawley’s office illegally concealed public documents immediately prior to a U.S. Senate election against Senator Claire McCaskill for the sole purpose of preventing damage to Hawley’s campaign and affecting the outcome of the election,” Pedroli wrote on Twitter. “Concealing public records in order to prevent damage to your campaign is cheating, it deprives competing candidates of a level playing field, and it’s illegal.”

Hawley’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Missouri Attorney General’s Office said it is reviewing the decision and would not comment further. The Missouri Attorney General is currently run by Eric Schmitt until January, when he gets sworn into office as Missouri’s other U.S. Senator.

‘No such records’

The litigation involved a request for records sent by the DSCC late in 2017 seeking from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office correspondence between its employees and OnMessage Inc., a political consulting firm.

Daniel Hartman, the custodian of records for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office at the time, told the DSCC that no such records existed. But they did, just on private email addresses, including on one belonging to Hartman.

A few months later, the DSCC sent another request for similar records between the attorney general and OnMessage, but Hartman replied that the volume of records involved would take time to produce but never gave the organization the records.

Reporters for The Kansas City Star later obtained copies of written communications between employees of the Missouri Attorney General’s Office and OnMessage and published a story in October 2018. The article described how political consultants hired by Hawley shaped and influenced how the attorney general’s office operated as they helped prepare him to run for Senate.

Hawley responded to the article by telling a Kansas City television station that it was “one of the most absurdly false stories” he had ever read and insisted that “nobody ran that office but me.”

When Hawley ran for attorney general in 2016, his campaign included an advertisement criticizing other Missouri politicians for using their elected offices to seek higher offices while pledging not to do the same if voters chose him for attorney general.

The Star’s article, coupled with a subsequent complaint filed by the American Democracy Fund, caused the Missouri Secretary of State to launch an investigation. The Missouri Attorney General on Dec. 21, 2018, produced records to the secretary of state, including ones from private email addresses of its employees to OnMessage.

By then, Hawley had defeated McCaskill in the 2018 general election and was on his way to becoming U.S. Senator.

In addition to the $12,000 in penalties, Beetem has asked attorneys for the DSCC to submit their legal bills to the court sometime in the next two months, which he will then have the attorney general’s office pay.

Steve Vockrodt is the former investigative editor for the Midwest Newsroom.
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