A Democratic legal fund is pressing the Federal Election Commission for an investigation of Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, alleging that the Republican’s state campaign illegally paid consultants for his Senate bid.
State campaign funds cannot be used for federal campaigns. The rule is intended to ensure that candidates cannot dodge federal contribution limits by raising money under higher state caps and using it for their Senate or congressional campaigns, said Brendan Fischer, director of federal and FEC reform for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog in Washington, D.C.
But as Fischer pointed out, Missouri does allow officeholders to use campaign funds for “any ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the duties of a holder of elective office.”
Hawley is the top Republican recruit to run against embattled Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill next year in Missouri, a state President Donald Trump won by nearly 19 percentage points in 2016. McCaskill is widely considered the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate.
Scott Paradise, a spokesman for Hawley’s Senate campaign, dismissed the allegations as politically motivated.
“Missouri would be better off if Campaign Claire and her Democrat allies got to work on delivering middle class tax relief rather than launching these baseless partisan attacks,” Paradise said.
The American Democracy Legal Fund previously filed a complaint with the FEC on Aug. 2, the same day that Hawley announced he intended to create a federal committee to explore a run against McCaskill.
The fund is a creation of David Brock, an influential operative and major Democratic Party fundraiser.
The updated complaint, filed by the Democratic fund on Nov. 9, accuses Hawley of “repeated violations.” It says Hawley used more than $180,000 in prohibited funds from his state account to pay for activities that aided the Senate campaign Hawley was “seriously considering” for months before officially declaring his candidacy.
The complaint says Hawley’s state campaign filing in October shows the account shelled out an additional $18,516 in legal fees, communications, financial and media consulting to vendors Hawley either used during his 2016 attorney general campaign in Missouri, or to vendors he’s since used for his Senate campaign.
Until late last year, there were no limits on political contributions in Missouri. In November 2016, Missouri voters endorsed a referendum to impose new limits. Now donations to statewide, legislative, and judicial offices are capped at $2,600 per election. Contributions to political parties are capped at $25,000 per election. There are no limits on contributions to political action committees.
Federal law limits individual donors to $2,700 per election.
Three of the vendors cited in the Democratic group’s complaint are consultants who received more than $7,600 from Hawley’s state campaign fund in September 2017, after he began spending money on his Senate campaign.
“This complaint is hardly baseless, in fact Josh Hawley’s own FEC report proves he was spending money from his state campaign account to test the waters for a Senate run in violation of federal law,” said a spokesman for the fund, Brad Woodhouse, in an email.
“Josh Hawley is an ambitious, ladder-climbing politician who thinks the rules don't apply to him,” Woodhouse said. “He may be in for a rude awakening.”
Paradise said all new spending from Hawley’s attorney general committee ceased upon the creation of his Senate campaign committee in August.
Any spending from the state campaign after that date was associated with ongoing maintenance or previously incurred expenses, he said.
Hawley’s state campaign records show he paid $1,402.25 to Williams-Keepers, a certified public accounting and consulting firm, on September 9; $5,179.50 to The Gober Group law firm on September 13; $385 to Williams-Keepers on September 20 and $691 to First Tuesday on September 30 for travel.
First Tuesday has the same address as OnMessage, a political consulting firm based in the Washington, D.C. area. OnMessage’s founding partner, Brad Todd, was a consultant for Hawley’s attorney general campaign and now is a consultant for his Senate run.
The complaint notes that Hawley’s filing with the Missouri Ethics Commission shows he paid The Gober Group law firm from both his state and Senate accounts on the same day, Sept. 13, for legal fees. The state account payment was $5,179.50 and the Senate account payment was $1,733.50.
Asked to explain four disbursements paid by his state campaign after the creation of his Senate campaign, Hawley’s Senate campaign said the two payments to Williams-Keepers for accounting expenses were for costs associated with ongoing compliance, report filing and record keeping.
Legal expenses paid to the Gober Group are for attorney’s fees related to defending the state committee against the original FEC complaint filed by Democrats in August, according to the campaign.
The $691 travel expense paid to First Tuesday is a check that was reissued to cover expenses incurred in May and June, before Hawley formed his Senate committee. The original check was never cashed, Hawley’s campaign said.
Jason Hancock of the Kansas City Star contributed to this report from Jefferson City, Missouri.