Hawley blames McCaskill for campaign’s high legal spending

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s campaign spent what experts say is an uncommonly high sum on legal fees.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s campaign spent what experts say is an uncommonly high sum on legal fees. Kansas City Star

Top GOP Senate recruit Josh Hawley has spent more than $110,000 on lawyers since he launched his campaign four months ago —about 20 percent of his total spending so far in the race, and a sum that experts say is unusually high.

His campaign blames Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Democrat Hawley hopes to oust in November, for the high legal expenses.

“Claire McCaskill and her allies have a deliberate strategy to smear Josh and his wife, Erin,” said Hawley campaign spokeswoman Kelli Ford in a statement.

Ford pointed to what she said were “multiple frivolous” campaign finance complaints filed against Hawley by the American Democracy Legal Fund, a creation of influential Democratic operative David Brock. The complaints allege that Hawley illegally paid Senate consultants with state campaign funds.

Brock also founded the super PAC American Bridge 21st Century, which has filed public records requests with the attorney general’s office and University of Missouri, where Hawley worked as a law professor before winning election as Missouri’s AG in 2016. Hawley’s wife still works as a professor at the university’s law school.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has filed records requests as well with the school and the attorney general’s office.

It is a common tactic for so-called opposition researchers helping a rival’s campaign to use open records requests to comb through a candidate’s background and connections for material that could be used against them.

“They have asked for copies of every email Erin sent, every document she has authored — and Josh too,” Ford said. “It’s sad that Claire is staking her re-election on her ability to launch personal attacks.”

McCaskill’s campaign says the senator has made no records requests on Erin Hawley, or referred to her even in passing.

“This campaign should be about us, our policies, and the issues that are important to Missourians,” said Meira Bernstein, McCaskill’s campaign spokeswoman. “I think Josh Hawley should quit complaining and make clear to the people of Missouri that he will join [McCaskill] in focusing on the issues and not attacking family members during this campaign.”

Federal law and Federal Election Commission regulations permit campaign funds to be used for authorized expenditures in connection with a campaign, said FEC spokeswoman Judith Ingram. Using campaign money for personal legal bills is generally verboten, however.

“The FEC decides on a case-by-case basis whether legal expenses are considered ‘personal use’ and thus are expenses that a candidate may not pay for using campaign funds,” Ingram said.

In specific situations, the FEC has allowed campaign funds to be used to pay for up to 50 percent of legal expenses that do not relate directly to the campaign if the allegations of wrongdoing require the candidate to give “substantive responses” to the press, she said.

In the last three months of 2017 alone, Hawley’s campaign shelled out $109,136 in total legal expenses.

An analysis of legal expenses by Senate candidates in the same quarter in the last two election cycles showed that Hawley spent more on legal expenses than any other Senate candidate except for Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat who paid nearly half-a-million dollars on legal fees in 2013 as he faced criminal corruption charges. (Money well spent — the federal charges were recently dropped.)

The next highest spenders among Senate candidates were Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who paid $59,901 in legal expenses in the fourth quarter of 2015 and Cory Booker, D-N.J., who $84,299 in the 4th quarter of 2013.

Most of the money Hawley spent — $87,614 — went to Cooper & Kirk PLLC for work related to open records requests. Cooper & Kirk is a high-powered Washington, D.C. law firm that describes itself on its website as “a litigation boutique specializing in commercial, regulatory, and constitutional disputes” and counts the Ford Motor Company, the National Rifle Association and Bank of America among its clients.

An attorney from Cooper & Kirk, John Ohlendorf, represented Hawley in a previous lawsuit over a 2015 open records request to University of Missouri for Hawley’s emails and other documents. That suit, filed by former Republican State Rep. Kevin Elmer, was dismissed in September 2016.

During the most recent three-month period, Hawley’s campaign also spent $13,977 for legal consulting by a national law firm, The Gober Group, in response to the complaints filed with the Federal Election Commission, and paid $7,545 to Graves Garrett LLC for handling the campaign’s incorporation paperwork. Graves Garrett LLC is the Missouri-based law firm of Todd Graves, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party.

Earlier in 2017, the Hawley campaign paid an additional $1,733 to The Goober Group for FEC work.

Experts on open records laws expressed surprise about the amount of money Hawley’s campaign spent related to the records requests by the DSCC and American Bridge.

“Absent litigation, that is an incredibly unusual amount of money to be expended in connection with public records requests,” said Adam Marshall, attorney at the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington.

The DSCC declined to comment for this article. Joshua Karp, a spokesman for American Bridge, said the group routinely uses public transparency laws to hold Republicans accountable for work they do while getting their taxpayer-funded salaries.

“It’s shameful that Josh Hawley — who as Attorney General is sworn to uphold Missouri's public transparency laws — has spent nearly six figures fighting the accountability Missourians expect from their public officials. So what is Josh Hawley so terrified Missouri voters will find out?”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise