Missouri taxpayers might have to pay $300,000 for open records violation under Hawley

J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press file photo

Missouri taxpayers could be on the hook for paying $300,000 in legal fees after a judge ruled last year that the Missouri Attorney General’s Office violated the state’s open records law under Republican Josh Hawley.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sued the office in 2019, alleging that it purposely concealed emails between the office and Hawley’s political consultants while he was running for the U.S. Senate in 2018.

Cole County Judge Jon Beetem sided with the DSCC in November, agreeing that the attorney general’s office concealed the emails and ordered the office to pay the maximum amount allowed by state law, $12,000 in civil penalties and reasonable attorney’s fees.

A motion filed Jan. 13 requests $306,000 in attorney’s fees and taxable costs be awarded to the DSCC. The motion was first reported by the Missouri Independent.

The DSCC argued that it should be awarded the full amount requested because it prevailed entirely, “demonstrating both the quality of the legal services provided by counsel and counsel’s professional ability.”

The DSCC stated that because the case spanned over three years and the attorney general’s office’s “vigorous defense,” their costs increased significantly.

In Beetem’s November decision, he said that the attorney general’s office “prevented an opposing party committee from accessing documents potentially damaging to then-Attorney General Hawley’s political campaign.”

After the original records request was sent by the DSCC in 2017, Daniel Hartman, the then-custodian of records for the office, replied that no such records were found. The DSCC filed another records request in 2018, but Hartman failed to hand over the records until the discovery phase of the lawsuit began, according to a timeline in the November decision.

The Star uncovered emails in October 2018, discovering that staffers were using private email accounts to speak with political consultants that would later help run Hawley’s U.S. Senate campaign.

Beetem wrote in his decision that being able to store public information offsite and conduct public business in private emails would leave the Sunshine Law “toothless.”

“It is the public policy of this state “that meetings, records, votes, actions and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law,”” Beetem wrote.

Though the case is regarding Hawley’s time as attorney general, the decision came down when fellow Republican Eric Schmitt was in the position. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey took over the office this month after Schmitt was elected to the U.S. Senate in November.

A statement from Kyle Plotkin, a campaign spokesperson for Hawley, said that the investigations into Hawley’s use of resources already determined there was no wrongdoing.

“After their partisan witch hunt got dismissed by investigators, now the D.C. Democrats want Missouri taxpayers to pay them for documents they got for free,” Plotkin said in an emailed statement.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, investigated whether Hawley illegally used public resources for his campaign in 2019, but cleared him of any misconduct.

Then-State Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, also investigated Hawley’s use of public resources and concluded it was unclear whether his actions were illegal. Hawley criticized Galloway at the time, alleging that the Democratic auditor was altering the audit to seem more critical of him.

Madeline Sieren, a spokesperson for Bailey, said that Schmitt’s office opted not to appeal the decision.

“As stewards of taxpayer dollars, our office will always work to protect Missourians’ hard-earned money from exorbitant attorney’s fees,” Sieren said in an emailed statement without specifically saying whether Bailey would contest the fee request.