JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Republican U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley is facing questions about compliance with open-records laws while he was serving as Missouri's attorney general.
At issue are emails between Attorney General's Office staffers and OnMessage consultants, who gave directions to official staffers shortly after Hawley assumed leadership in January 2017. The consultants later went on to work for Hawley's senatorial campaign against former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
The Kansas City Star reported the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in September 2017 filed an open-records request to the Attorney General's Office for "correspondence with the firm OnMessage Inc., including any employees or representatives of the organization."
Daniel Hartman, a former special counsel for the office who later became chief of staff, told Democrats in October 2017 that "we have searched our records and found no responsive records."
But the Attorney General's Office in December 2018 provided emails between consultants and official staffers, who used personal email accounts, to Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. Ashcroft is investigating whether Hawley misused public resources as attorney general. Hawley has denied any wrongdoing.
Hawley's Senate spokespeople didn't immediately return an Associated Press request for comment Friday.
Attorney Mark Johnson, whose Kansas City firm handles public record issues, said there's a "big difference" between public agencies in Missouri saying they don't have requested records versus saying those records exist but are not subject to public disclosure.
"If they tell you right out of the box that we don't have anything, I view that as a violation of law if that turns out not to be true," Johnson said. "The thing that it didn't say is whether they found the stuff by looking further and at the time they told you they didn't have anything they honestly didn't believe it. That would have to be something that would have to be established."
David Roland with the libertarian Freedom Center of Missouri said it's possible that Hawley's office "unlawfully withheld the records in regard to the September 2017 request, but it is not certain that they did so."
But Roland said if the office policy was to retain all emails, even those from private accounts, "that would seem to be the clincher."
The attorney general's office previously told the newspaper that "our office policy is to retain all records required by law regardless of the medium of the communication" and "personal emails are subject to the same retention and disclosure requirements as those on public accounts."