Last night, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft announced that he has launched an investigation into outgoing Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, claiming that Hawley hired campaign staffers to run his office while using taxpayer dollars.
Hawley ran for Attorney General in 2016 with the promise that he would not be another "ladder-climbing politician." He even made a campaign ad depicting men in suits climbing ladders as he stood firm on the ground, promising voters that he would not be like them. But after less than two years in office, he was elected as Senator, defeating incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill by six points. How did he get there so fast?
How Hawley's Consultants Ran The Show
Ten days after assuming office at the Missouri State Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, Republican consultants Timmy Teepell and Gail Gitcho began communicating with his staff about the agenda for the year to come, repeatedly flying into Missouri from Washington to run meetings. By the time Hawley announced his Senate exploratory committee that summer, after less than six months in office, he had already paid Teepell and Gitcho about $110,494.00 - a third of his campaign's spending for the first three quarters of 2017.
The contents of these meetings could run afoul of Missouri's State Constitution. While it is legal for outsiders to hold meetings on state government property, the Constitution prohibits said meetings from being explicitly personal or political. If Teepell and Gitcho's meetings were just about policy, it would be fine, but the Star's October 31st report said they directed staffers to "raise Hawley's profile" in advance of the campaign.
In the complaint filed by the American Democracy Legal Fund, public records showed Teepell and Gitcho were determined to pursue an "agenda," one of which was to announce an investigation into the opioid crisis. This was done not only to boost Hawley's profile but also to undercut McCaskill, who was investigating the opioid crisis in the Senate.
The consultants were also adamant about putting Hawley on television. In an email to staffers, Gitcho wrote that she was having lunch with Chris Wallace to "pitch [Hawley] as power player of the week." She then directed the staff to "get on the same page" before the Wallace lunch took place.
Under Missouri's Sunshine Laws, if the emails between the consultants and staffers were sent via government email addresses, they would have to be made available to the public. However, the staffers were confirmed to have communicated with them via personal accounts.
Hawley has distanced himself from this criticism, saying that he does not use either a private or a government email account for business. However, we do know that Hawley's top aide, Evan Rosell, communicated via Confide, a messaging app with self-destructing messages, which would violate the Sunshine Laws. Ironically this revelation came after the office investigated former Governor Eric Greitens, who resigned after confessing to sexual assault, and who used Confide to communicate with his staff.
According to David Roland of the Freedom Center, “If the law requires government officials to retain records pertaining to the public business...you really shouldn’t be using an app or any other kind of program that allows those records to go away.” Missouri state law classifies a record as "any document or material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received in connection with the transaction of official business," and the Attorney General's office retention policy says that official text messages must be treated the same as physical ones. Given that Hawley's investigation into Greitens was criticized for its lack of thoroughness, it's possible that conflict of interest prevented him from digging deeper.
While Hawley's office insists taxpayer dollars were not used to fund the meetings, this aspect will also be scrutinized, as Missouri law prohibits elected officials from using taxpayer-funded staff to assist in any campaign efforts. Those who worked in the Attorney General's office found themselves confused by the chain of command, as the consultants dictated things Hawley should have covered himself, such as how the office would spend its budget.
Under Hawley, the Office Was a Shambles
It shouldn't be too surprising that Hawley would have Teepell and Gitcho run the show. According to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Hawley was hands-off to the point of negligence, conducting much of his work as Attorney General remotely and not establishing residence in Jefferson City. His transition team barely advised employees about their future, offering little to no hints about what he was planning. When he assumed office, he gutted the environmental/agricultural division, grouped the remaining eight divisions under "Civil" and "Criminal" headings, and started the Federalism Unit to limit the influence and regulation of state government.
Just as the Trump Administration has been a revolving door of hirings and firings, so has the Missouri Attorney General's office under Hawley. 98 employees left during 2017, and 81 more followed by October 1st, 2018. Granted, this same kind of turnover occurred during former Attorney General Chris Koster's first year in 2009, but 47% of those who left moved to different jobs in state government, as opposed to only 22% in Hawley's first year.
Hawley may have sold himself as the opposite of a career politician, but it's clear now that from day one, he was only interested in using the Attorney General's office as a stepping stone to the Senate. When he finally hit the trail last summer, he campaigned less on matters of policy and more on attacking the Democrats - his bus even featured unflattering photos comparing McCaskill to Pelosi. During the final weeks of the campaign, McCaskill called him out on everything we're seeing come to light now - but it wasn't enough to overcome the nativism of Missourans, who believed Hawley when he promised he'd build the wall.
As we've seen this last week, Republicans are not shy about cheating to win elections, such as North Carolina's Mark Harris, nor are they interested in cooperating with their colleagues across the aisle, as in Wisconsin and Michigan. Hawley will likely be seated in the Senate on January 3rd with his fellow freshmen, but he will be forever tainted by this scandal, which reminds Americans that the party of Lincoln has abandoned any pretense of ethics or morality in the pursuit of absolute power.