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For breaking public records laws, Josh Hawley's office could cost Missouri taxpayers $300,000

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., questions Dettelbach during a confirmation hearing Wednesday.
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., during a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing.

A judge ruled that the Missouri Attorney General’s office “knowingly and purposefully” violated the state’s open records law while it was being run by now-U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley. The motivation for breaking the law, the judge concluded, was concern that releasing the records could harm Hawley’s campaign.

Following a Missouri judge’s determination that the attorney general’s office “knowingly and purposefully” violated the state’s open records law while it was being run by now-U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, plaintiffs in the case say they are owed more than $300,000 in legal fees.

In November, Cole County Judge Jon Beetem determined the attorney general’s office violated the Sunshine Lawby taking steps to conceal emails between Hawley’s taxpayer-funded staff and his political consultants during his 2018 campaign for U.S. Senate.

The motivation for breaking the law, the judge concluded, was concern that releasing the records could harm Hawley’s campaign.

Beetem ordered the attorney general’s office to pay $12,000 in civil penalties — the maximum allowed under state law — plus attorney’s fees.

The plaintiffs in the case, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, filed a motion for attorneys fees earlier this month asking the judge to award $306,000. Hourly rates for the attorneys involved in the litigation ranged from $550 an hour up to $1,200 an hour.

The full amount should be awarded, the plaintiffs argue, because “DSCC obtained complete success on all of its claims, an outcome that reflects the high quality of the services rendered by counsel in this case.”

Additionally, the attorney general’s office “vigorously defended this matter, forcing DSCC to incur significant fees.”

The judge recognized how important the case was, the plaintiffs argue, when he levied the maximum possible fine.

“This case is particularly important given both the (attorney general’s office’s) role as the entity charged with enforcing the Sunshine Law, and the practical results of the (office’s) decision to withhold these documents from then-Attorney General Hawley’s political opponent,” they wrote in their court filing.

Eric Schmitt became attorney general in 2019, after Hawley was sworn into the U.S. Senate. Andrew Bailey took over as attorney general earlier this month after Schmitt also joined the U.S. Senate.

A spokeswoman for Bailey said the previous administration under Schmitt “elected not to appeal the ruling.”

“As stewards of taxpayer dollars,” she said, “our office will always work to protect Missourians’ hard-earned money from exorbitant attorney’s fees.”

The emails in question were requested by the DSCC in late 2017. Hawley’s office told the DSCC at the time that it had “searched our records and found no responsive records.”

But a year after the request was denied, The Kansas City Star revealed Hawley and his staff had used private email rather than their government accounts to communicate with out-of-state political consultants who would go on to run Hawley’s U.S. Senate campaign.

Among those included in the private email discussions was Daniel Hartman, who at the time was the attorney general’s office’s custodian of records.

The DSCC filed a lawsuit in 2019.

In his November order, Beetem agreed that Hartman was aware communications responsive to the DSCC request existed and should have turned them over. It appears he didn’t, Beetem concluded, because it could have been politically damaging to Hawley.

“Then-Attorney General Hawley was actively running for U.S. Senate at the time of these requests, which were submitted by a national party committee supporting his opponent,” Beetem wrote in his ruling. “The requested documents showed — at a minimum — questionable use of government resources.”

Further, Beetem wrote, the fact that public business was being conducted on private email accounts — in violation of the attorney general’s office’s own policy — is “itself evidence of a conscious design, intent or plan to conceal these potentially controversial records from public view.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.

Jason Hancock has been writing about Missouri since 2011, most recently as lead political reporter for The Kansas City Star. He has spent nearly two decades covering politics and policy for news organizations across the Midwest, and has a track record of exposing government wrongdoing and holding elected officials accountable.
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