JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) — A state judge held Tuesday that U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, while acting as the Missouri attorney general, intentionally withheld government communications to avoid damage to his 2018 Senate campaign.
Cole County Judge Jon Beetem, a Republican, found that the context behind the records requests in question supports the contention that the AG’s office acted in a knowing and purposeful manner in refusing to release the records.
“Then-Attorney General Hawley was actively running for U.S. Senate at the time of these requests, which were submitted by a national party committee supporting his opponent,” Beetem wrote in his 19-page ruling on Monday. “The requested documents showed — at a minimum — a questionable use of government resources, demonstrated by the fact that their eventual public release helped trigger an investigation by the Secretary of State’s Office into the potential misuse of government funds to support Attorney General Hawley’s Senate campaign.”
Beetem ordered the AG's office to pay $12,000 in civil penalties for violating the Missouri Sunshine Law.
The fines include $1,000 each for two knowing violations and $5,000 each for two purposeful violations, the maximum allowed by state law.
The ruling is the latest development in a case filed in 2019 by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which supported Hawley’s opponent Claire McCaskill. The state attorney general’s office and its custodian of records at the time, Daniel Hartman, were named as defendants.
Hawley beat McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent in the 2018 race, with more than 51% of the vote.
The 2019 lawsuit took issue with Missouri’s handling of requests filed in September 2017 and March 2018.
The plaintiff, in September 2017, asked for records of correspondence with OnMessage Inc., a political consulting firm.
Beetem found that Hartman had messages in his personal email account between Attorney General’s Office employees and individuals from OnMessage Inc. concerning public business.
“Despite possessing these records and understanding his responsibilities as the AGO’s custodian of records, on October 6, 2017, Mr. Hartman responded to DSCC’s Sunshine Law request, stating that the AGO retained no documents that were responsive to DSCC’s request,” Beetem wrote.
Beetem also found that the office retained documents requested by plaintiff in a request made in March 2018. According to the ruling, Hartman asked a state worker to locate responsive records. The worker found 42 such records, but the office failed to produce the documents.
“By failing to produce the requested records, Mr. Hartman and the AGO prevented an opposing party committee from accessing documents potentially damaging to then-Attorney General Hawley’s political campaign,” Beetem wrote.
“What is more, Mr. Hartman — the individual at the center of the AGO’s failure to turn over these records — is included on much of the correspondence in question, was involved with the Hawley campaign as early as January 2017, and ultimately became Senator Hawley’s state director," the ruling states.
Mark Pedroli, an attorney who represented the DSCC along with the Elias Law Group, said on Twitter that the ruling is an “enormous victory not only for transparency and good government but also for access to critical government records during elections.”
“Concealing public records in order to prevent damage to your campaign is cheating, it deprives competing candidates of a level playing field, and it's illegal," Pedroli tweeted.
“All the more damaging, these actions were undertaken by Hawley's Attorney General's office, an office entrusted by the people with upholding and enforcing the very same law they violated," he added.
Neither Hawley’s offices nor the Missouri AG’s office immediately responded to requests for comments late Tuesday.
Beetem also noted that the Kansas City Star obtained records between the attorney general’s office and OnMessage and reported in October 2018 that a political consultant helped to lead Hawley’s office. Beetem wrote that the complaint's reference the Star’s report and led to an investigation by the secretary of state’s office.
According to the ruling, the attorney general’s office turned over 85 documents voluntarily as part of the investigation that included documents from communications from its employees, Hawley and OnMessage political consultants made through private email accounts.
Democratic Auditor Nicole Galloway in 2020 performed and audit on the office that was inconclusive as to whether Hawley broke any laws.
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