Updated at 7:20 p.m. Dec. 10 with a response to the investigation from the Office of the Attorney General.
Updated at 2:10 p.m. Dec. 10 with secretary of state's office requesting the auditor's help in the investigation— Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is under investigation for possibly using "public funds" in his bid for U.S. Senate, the Secretary of State's Office announced Thursday.
Deputy General Counsel Khristine Heisinger said in a letter that the office will "commence an investigation" but didn't provide more details. The letter was addressed to the left-leaning American Democracy Legal Fund, which requested the investigation.
Hawley beat Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill on Nov. 6, and will resign as AG in January before becoming a senator next month.
An Oct. 31 Kansas City Star article said Hawley, a Republican, had consultants from his U.S. Senate campaign talk with state-paid staffers. The article, which was based on emails and other documents obtained through public records requests, also said that consultants ran meetings with senior staffers and were included on emails about state business.
The Star reported that the consulting staff was there as early as January 2017 — the month he took office — though Hawley didn't announce his candidacy until October 2017. He set up an exploratory committee in August 2017.
Hawley told St. Louis Public Radio late Thursday that the American Democracy Legal Fund’s accusations were “frivolous.’’ He said the group has been leveling inaccurate charges for months.
“Nobody has run my office but me,’’ Hawley said, adding that the consultants were helping him with communications, but were otherwise not involved in his official office activities or his subsequent campaign.
Hawley may have broken Missouri law if the Secretary of State's office finds that any of the meetings with campaign staff were focused on the campaign itself.
Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft will determine whether the arrangement violated any state laws. If so, Ashcroft may issue a probable cause statement and possibly refer the matter to a local prosecutor.
Ashcroft's office does not have subpoena power of "documents or persons," as it mentioned in a letter Monday to Auditor Nicole Galloway. Signed by Ashcroft, the letter asks Galloway to "investigate these allegations as part of your audit" of the attorney general's office, which happens when an office changes hands. The secretary of state's office is also seeking to sit in on any interviews regarding the allegations.
The auditor’s office said it is reviewing the request.
University of Missouri political science professor Peverill Squire called the investigation, and the auditor's potential involvement, unusual.
“I would say this is so uncertain and nobody has an exact set of guidelines to follow, we’ll have to see what if any hard evidence they come up with,” Squire said. “The charges themselves can’t be easily dismissed.”
Hawley emphasized repeatedly that “there was no campaign’’ until October 2017, so any advice from the consultants before then had nothing to do with his Senate bid.
Hawley took to Twitter on Friday morning about the investigation, too, saying "Election is over and Dems lost. Get over it."
This complaint about my work as AG by Hillary Clinton henchman David Brock is totally absurd. This is the SEVENTH legal complaint Democrats have launched against me in last 18 months. All frivolous. All political. Not one has succeeded. Election is over and Dems lost. Get over it
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) December 7, 2018
Mary Compton, the communications director for Hawley's office, said in a statement that "no taxpayer resources were ever expended for campaign purposes. And no government employees ever participated in campaign or political activities.”
A letter from D. John Sauer, solicitor general in the Attorney General's Office, to the Secretary of State's Office lays out Hawley's defense in more detail. He argues that all use of state funds and communications were in service of Hawley's position as attorney general.
The American in Democracy Legal fund leaned heavily on the Star's reporting in its Nov. 2 complaint to Ashcroft. The complaint said the consultants were there to "help shape Hawley's image for his next campaign," and that "Hawley's conduct violates the trust that Missourians gave him to serve the public interest and enforce this state's laws honorably."
St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jo Mannies contributed to this story.
Samuel King is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelKingNews