After Democrats file complaint, Ashcroft must decide whether to investigate Hawley

Missouri’s Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has until early next month to decide whether to investigate allegations made by Democrats that Attorney General Josh Hawley illegally used public funds to support his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Ashcroft’s office received a complaint on Election Day from the American Democracy Legal Fund, a liberal group backed by influential Democratic operative David Brock. The group filed the complaint after The Kansas City Star reported in October that the out-of-state political consultants who would go on to run Hawley’s Senate campaign stepped in to help direct the attorney general’s office — and raise Hawley’s national profile.

Hawley defeated U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill last week. He will resign as attorney general when he is sworn in as a senator in January.

Ezra Reese, an attorney representing the American Democracy Legal Fund, told The Star Thursday that Missouri law is “quite clear that one is simply not allowed to use government resources to promote a candidate.”

“There’s a bright line,” Reese said, “between office holder resources and campaign resources.”

Hawley’s campaign manager Kyle Plotkin said Reese’s argument is based on a false premise.

“Josh wasn’t a Senate candidate at the time,” Plotkin said. “He wouldn’t become a Senate candidate until near the end of 2017 ... I hope ADLF isn’t getting billed for this genius legal assessment. He’s stating the law, which was followed.”

Mary Compton, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said in an email that the allegations are “totally meritless” and “nothing more than a partisan attempt to slander the work of the attorney general’s office.”

“As we have said before,” Compton wrote, “no taxpayer resources were ever expended for campaign purposes. And no government employees ever participated in campaign or political activities.”

The American Democracy Legal Fund is asking Ashcroft, who like Hawley is a Republican, to launch an investigation to determine whether Hawley should be prosecuted for violating state law. Lawmakers in 2016 gave the secretary of state the authority to investigate possible violations of the ban on taxpayer funds being used for personal or political purposes.

Hawley’s case could test the secretary of state’s new powers under the revised law.

“Republicans do investigate each other in Missouri. They’re not shy about that, so I’ve got some hope,” said Reese, the attorney for American Democracy Legal Fund. He noted that Hawley launched several investigations into former Gov. Eric Greitens, a fellow Republican who resigned in June while facing allegations of criminal misconduct.

“It could be a bit of a test case because I do think that the facts are pretty clear that out-of-state political consultants should not be directing government resources for presumably political aims,” Reese said, “and that’s a pretty clear case of what this statute was meant to capture.”

Ashcroft’s office has until early December to dismiss the complaint or launch a formal investigation.

“Any decision made to investigate a complaint is done with input from counsel on staff at the secretary of state’s office, and the final decision is made by the Secretary of State,” said Maura Browning, Ashcroft’s spokeswoman.

In late October, The Star revealed that Hawley’s out-of-state campaign consultants gave direct guidance and tasks to Hawley’s taxpayer-funded staff, and led meetings with official staff during work hours in the state Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, where the attorney general’s office is located.

The arrangement raised concerns among some of Hawley’s employees about the mixing of politics with public business. They also became confused about the chain of command in the attorney general’s office.

The topics of discussion at these meetings included the office’s budget and staffing, as well as how to roll out major policy initiatives, according to emails, text messages and other documents obtained by The Star.

Under Missouri law, elected officials can tap into their campaign cash to pay for expenses incurred in connection with their official duties. But they cannot use public funds to support political campaigns.

Federal law also prohibits any use of public funds for personal or political purposes. In 1993, Former Attorney General Bill Webster pleaded guilty to two federal felony charges related to using his state staff and office equipment for his campaign.

Webster was sentenced to two years in prison.

The American Democracy Legal Fund argues that Hawley’s official staff were assigned tasks by campaign consultants solely designed to aid his eventual bid for the U.S. Senate.

“Under Hawley’s oversight and with his approval,” the complaint says, “political consultants appear to have used Missouri’s taxpayer-funded resources to construct a carefully-curated communications strategy that would puff up Hawley’s public image and prepare him for his Senate candidacy.”

Hawley’s use of campaign consultants to help run his official office will also get scrutiny in the months ahead from Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat.

Galloway’s office conducts an audit any time there is a change in a statewide office in order to “assist in transitions and ensure that incoming officials are aware of areas for improvement,” said Steph Deidrick, spokeswoman for the auditor’s office.

Use of taxpayer resources will be among the areas of focus.

An audit of Gov. Jay Nixon’s office completed last year, for example, noted that he used security and transportation resources provided by the Missouri Highway Patrol for political and personal activities without reimbursing the state.

In 2008, when Nixon was serving as attorney general, his campaign reimbursed the state thousands of dollars after it was discovered he was using a state-funded car and driver to travel to non-official events.

Galloway’s audit will also delve into the attorney general’s office’s compliance with the state’s open records laws.

Instead of using their government-issued email to help organize and discuss the consultant meetings, which would automatically be subject to the state’s open records laws, Hawley’s taxpayer-funded staff used their personal email addresses.

In the waning days of the 2018 campaign Hawley refused to comment on why his government staff was using private email.

Deidrick said the audit of the attorney general’s office will be complete sometime next summer.

Lindsay Wise: lwise@mcclatchydc.com, 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise