Political consultants’ role in Hawley’s AG office raise concerns
State auditors have started their probe into former Attorney General Josh Hawley’s office, a process that will include “heightened scrutiny” into allegations that Hawley illegally used state resources to support his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate.
The audit began when Hawley stepped down as attorney general this month before being sworn in as Missouri’s junior senator on January 3. The 39-year-old Republican unseated Missouri’s Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in November. His Senate office did not immediately respond to request for comment Thursday.
Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway’s office conducts an audit any time there is a change in a statewide office. In this case, the state’s Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft asked Galloway, a Democrat, to use her subpoena power to aid his own investigation into whether Hawley violated a state law that bars elected officials from using public funds to support political campaigns.
Ashcroft’s office has authority to investigate election-related offenses, but he doesn’t have subpoena power.
Galloway agreed to give the allegations extra attention. Such “close-out” reviews typically take six months to a year to complete.
Galloway’s audits will look at all aspects of the inner workings of the attorney general’s office under Hawley. Her past reviews of Democratic officeholders have produced negative findings.
A close-out audit of former Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster, for example, noted he lacked “adequate policies and procedures to identify and address certain potential conflicts of interest” and did not “adequately document the selection process of outside counsel and expert witnesses.” Galloway’s audit of Gov. Jay Nixon, also a Democrat, found he didn’t reimburse the state when he used security and transportation provided by the Missouri State Highway Patrol for political or personal activities.
While Hawley’s administration is the subject of the audit now underway, Galloway will send document requests to newly appointed Attorney General Eric Schmitt, said Steph Deidrick, spokeswoman for Galloway’s office.
Initial meetings already have taken place, but auditors are planning a formal entrance session with attorney general staff in the coming weeks.
Ashcroft’s request for Galloway’s help followed a report by The Kansas City Star in October that out-of-state campaign consultants, who would go on to run Hawley’s Senate campaign, gave direct guidance and tasks to taxpayer-funded staff in the attorney general’s office as they sought to raise his national profile.
The consultants led meetings with staff during business hours in the state Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, where the attorney general’s office is located.
Eighty-five pages of records released by Hawley’s office shortly before Christmas confirmed The Star’s reporting. Those documents show public employees in his office used private email addresses for official business and frequently took direction from political consultants.
The records include conversations conducted on private email addresses between Hawley’s political consultants and his taxpayer-funded staff, starting almost immediately after Hawley was sworn in as attorney general in January 2017.
In one Jan. 19, 2017 private email string, for example, Louisiana-based Timmy Teepell told Hawley’s staff to “start compiling a punch list of what we need to do to roll out each of our agenda items this year.” Teepell wrote that the staffers “should put together a weekly conference call for all of us to set aside time each week to focus attention on these projects.”
Another April 26, 2017 private email from Teepell, a partner with political consulting firm OnMessage, sets tasks for attorney general staff to accomplish, such as developing a target list of key legislators, a job description for a press secretary and a list of accomplishments. “Our next meeting we will go over these items, but I want to spend the majority of the time brainstorming and fleshing out our Human Trafficking 2.0 plans, Opioid Plan, and Veteran Pro Bono plans,” the email reads.
A May 1, 2017, private email chain with the subject line “Re: Follow Up From Timmy’s Visit,” shows Hawley’s then-chief of staff, Evan Rossell, discussing “action points” among attorney general staff, including “Next steps on Opioid front” and reviewing a “pro bono project.”
The documents include conference call instructions and calendars that describe meetings involving Hawley’s consultants and his staff during work hours.
Also among the cache of records is one titled “gg draft 7/12.” It appears to be Boston-based political consultant Gail Gitcho’s public relations plan for the attorney general’s office regarding a raid of more than a dozen Asian massage parlors in southwest Missouri that would take place a week later.
The raid was part of a human trafficking and prostitution investigation that involved local law enforcement and Hawley’s office.
Gitcho, who would go on to help run Hawley’s Senate campaign, gave instructions about how the day should proceed, even going so far as to lay out what Hawley should wear when addressing the media.
“Josh should be wearing some sort of law enforcement garb,” the document said, “like a police jacket and hat.”
On the day of the raid, Hawley wore a badge and lanyard.
According to the Springfield News-Leader, no one has been charged with any felony crime as a result of the 2017 raids.
Under Missouri law, elected officials can use campaign funds to pay for expenses incurred in connection with their official duties. But state statutes forbid spending public funds “to advocate, support, or oppose any . . . candidate for public office.”
Citing The Star’s reporting, the American Democracy Legal Fund, a liberal group, filed a complaint in early November with Ashcroft’s office, requesting an investigation. Ashcroft announced he would investigate last month.
Hawley has called on his fellow Republican Ashcroft to dismiss the complaint as politically motivated.
In a letter released along with the 85 pages of records on Dec. 21, Hawley’s first assistant and solicitor John Sauer argued to Ashcroft that “the documents reflect ordinary consulting services by outside consultants giving advice” on achieving the attorney general’s priorities.
In his letter, Sauer noted that the consultants were not paid for by taxpayers and that no state staffers in the attorney general’s office participated in any campaign activity.
“Missouri law explicitly authorizes and approves the use of state political committee resources to aid the effective functioning of a public office,” Sauer wrote, “and as these documents demonstrate, that is exactly what happened here.”
As The Star reported in October, there’s no evidence that any taxpayer funds were used to pay political consultants Teepell and Gitcho. Their travel expenses and retainers were paid using money from Hawley’s attorney general campaign committee.
Galloway spokeswoman Deidrick said the auditor’s office would welcome anyone with information to contact the whistleblower hotline at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 800-347-8597. Information also can be submitted online at auditor.mo.gov/hotline.
Under state law, those who use the whistleblower hotline can choose to remain anonymous until they affirmatively consent to having their identity disclosed, Deidrick said.