But his emails: Missouri AG defends Josh Hawley’s use and deletion of private messages

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

We know that U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley used private email accounts to conduct public business while he was Missouri attorney general. The action violated the state’s Sunshine Law, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee claimed in lawsuit against his office.

Last week, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem heard arguments in court, where the state vigorously defended Hawley’s actions. Private emails stored on non-government servers are not public records, counsel for the AG’s office argued.

The messages no longer exist, attorneys claimed. Therefore, the communication should not be considered public records.

How is that right?

The practice of using private means to conduct official state business undermines state open records laws and has no place in Missouri politics.

Technology has changed the way we all communicate. Missouri laws governing record retention have failed to keep up.

Among the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s allegations: Hawley’s staff withheld emails the group sought between his taxpayer-funded office and the political consultants he used during his 2018 campaign for Senate.

Will Beetem rule in favor of the state’s motion to dismiss the case? Or will the judge agree that public officials destroying messages and texts is illegal and impose civil penalties against the state AG’s office, per the plaintiff’s request?

Elected officials conducting public business in private cannot become the norm in Missouri. The open records law falls under the purview of the state attorney general. The statute ensures the public has access to public records.

Shouldn’t Hawley’s successor, fellow Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt, know that a public record is any written or electronically-stored document relating to public business? You can’t skirt the law by claiming a record doesn’t exist when you intentionally destroy it. By that same logic, it would be perfectly fine for officials to conduct government business by writing on legal pads from their own homes, then burning the pages once they’re finished.

Politicians using private email servers or self-destroying messaging apps is nothing new. In 2017, Missourians were introduced to Confide, a text-deleting app used by disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens and his staff that regularly disappeared their communications into the ether. Grietens was sued by advocates for open government.

In 2019, Beetem ruled that Greitens’ use of Confide did not violate the open records law. Because the texts were automatically deleted and not retained, no violation occurred, Beetem ruled. The case is now under appeal. If the ruling is not overturned, it would open a huge loophole in Missouri’s open records law, creating a way to shield government communications regarding public business.

Mark Pedroli, one of the attorneys who sued the governor’s office for the use of Confide, says the consequences for the public are huge if the lower court’s dismissal is allowed to stand. Government officials could conceal their communications with impunity, fully undermining the intent of Missouri Sunshine Law, said Pedroli, a St. Louis County attorney and founder of the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project.

And that’s how we get to Hawley’s attempt to game the system. The attorney general’s office is using the same logic to argue Hawley’s actions were above board.

Top Republicans in Missouri believe the state’s open records law doesn’t pertain to them. We take the opposite view: Using private email servers to conduct public business is bad government. One of the biggest objections to Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign was her use of a private email system, which was also wrong.

Electronic records are no different than anything written on paper, and they must be retained. Period.

Get with the times, Missouri.