Hawley's 'Purposeful' Sunshine Law Violations Draw Maximum Fine

Cole County Judge comes down hard on AG's office under Josh Hawley

click to enlarge Josh Hawley ran for Senate in 2018 while serving as Missouri's Attorney General. - TOM HELLAUER
Josh Hawley ran for Senate in 2018 while serving as Missouri's Attorney General.

As Attorney General, now-Senator Josh Hawley ran an office that knowingly and purposefully violated the Sunshine Law — and did so in ways that expressly benefited Hawley's political ambitions and kept the public in the dark.

That's from a ruling issued today by Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem, who granted summary judgment to Hawley's foes and ordered the AG's office to pay the maximum under Missouri law: $12,000 in fines, with their opponents' attorney's fees on top of that.

The AG's opponents have 60 days to submit their legal fees to the court for repayment — a bill that will surely be much bigger than the fine.

The litigation goes back to Hawley's initial exploration of a run for U.S. Senate — and his opponents' attempts to find correspondence between Hawley and his top advisors, often using private email accounts, in which campaign and government business seemed to uncomfortably mix. The Kansas City Star published an eye-raising series of stories about that mingling in October of 2018, triggering an investigation by the Missouri Secretary of State.

Judge Beetem's ruling suggests the information should have come out much sooner, if only Hawley's office had followed the state's Sunshine Law. His ruling notes that, after receiving a Sunshine Law request from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, or DSCC, in March 2018, Hawley's office quickly located the records being requested.

But instead of turning them over, its custodian of records, Daniel Hartman, instead stalled — and stalled. First the AG's Office said they needed until April, then August.

Even then, the AG's office didn't turn over the records. Instead, they went radio silent on the request. The AG's office didn't get around to turning over the relevant records until August 2019, nearly a year and a half later — and only then as discovery in an open-records lawsuit filed by the DSCC.

For all the law's clarity, the designated records custodian, Hartman, had reason to stall: He's now state director for Senator Hawley, as Beetem notes. His political wagon was hitched to Hawley's star — not, apparently, the interests of good government.

It's ugly. Here's how Judge Beetem explains the AG's machinations:

"The AGO's failure to provide any coherent explanation for its substantial delay after failing to meet its second self-imposed, protracted deadline-much less the 'detailed explanation' required by the Sunshine Law, § 610.023(3), RSMo, indicates that [the AGO] was not actively seeking to comply with the law. Rather, after identifying responsive documents, the AGO evaded the law's requirements, deliberately concealing responsive documents. The AGO did not need more time to respond to DSCC's request: it located all responsive documents on March 16, 2018, and it deliberately withheld these documents without any plausible, lawful rationale for doing so [emphasis added]."

Now, if you follow this kind of litigation, you may find your heart sinking with the realization that Hawley himself  is not going to get stuck with the bill for this — not for $12,000 in fines, not for the six figures in legal fees surely to come. Neither will Hartman, his now-state director.

Instead, the taxpayers will get stuck footing the bill. The scheme to delay and knowingly, purposefully obscure public records worked. Hawley got what he wanted. He's on to D.C. (where he apparently much prefers to live anyway).

So what can you do to hold him accountable?

It's a small thing, but it may well be all we've got. Share this ruling far and wide. Tell people what Judge Beetem said. Help them understand the importance of open records — and how Hawley's crew violated that trust.

It won't hurt their pocketbooks. But it should hurt their political reputations.
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About The Author

Sarah Fenske

Sarah Fenske is the executive editor of Euclid Media Group, overseeing publications in eight cities. She is the former host of St. Louis on the Air and was previously editor-in-chief of the RFT and the LA Weekly. She lives in St. Louis.
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