Missouri GOP Secretary of State launches investigation into Hawley’s time as AG

Missouri’s Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has opened an investigation into how outgoing Attorney General Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyMcCaskill: 'Too many embarrassing uncles' in the Senate McCaskill 'not sure' Sanders, Harris, Warren can win Missouri in 2020 McCaskill: 'Kavanaugh spectacle' made the difference in midterm loss MORE (R) ran his office before launching his bid for Missouri's Senate seat, according to a letter obtained by The Hill.

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In a letter dated Thursday to Brad Woodhouse of the Democratic-allied American Democracy Legal Fund, Ashcroft's deputy general counsel Khristine Heisinger wrote, "This office will commence an investigation into the alleged offense."

Heisinger also asks for any information the organization may have to be forwarded to the secretary of state's office.

The letter comes after the organization wrote to Ashcroft on Nov. 2, days before the midterm elections, accusing Hawley of using "public funds as Attorney General to support his candidacy for U.S. Senate."

The investigation reportedly stems from Hawley’s use of outside consultants before launching his bid for Missouri's Senate seat, which he narrowly won last month in a race against Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillThe Year Ahead: Tech braces for new scrutiny from Washington McCaskill: 'Too many embarrassing uncles' in the Senate FEC votes to allow lawmakers to use campaign funds for personal cybersecurity MORE (D). 

In a statement to The Hill, Mary Compton, a spokesperson for the attorney general's office, called the allegations against Hawley "ridiculous" and "totally meritless."

“We are delighted to cooperate with the Secretary of State’s Office and put these ridiculous allegations to bed once and for all," Compton wrote in a statement. "These allegations are totally meritless and nothing more than a partisan attempt to slander the work of the Attorney General’s Office."

"As we have said before, no taxpayer resources were ever expended for campaign purposes," Compton added. "And no government employees ever participated in campaign or political activities.”

Ashcroft's office declined to comment further to The Hill.

The complaint came after The Kansas City Star reported that Hawley enlisted out-of-state political consultants to advise his taxpayer-funded staff in the attorney general's office. 

The Star reported that emails it had obtained between Washington-area political consultants to state staff reportedly demonstrated plans to boost Hawley’s image and agenda before his Senate campaign.

Campaign finance records show that OnMessage Inc., the consulting firm, flew to Missouri and met with Hawley's government staff, the paper reported. According to the Star, they held meetings in the state Supreme Court building to host campaign-style strategy sessions.

The consultants and attorney general staff reportedly used their private emails to organize meetings and official business, including how the office would tackle budget, staffing decisions and policy initiatives against sex trafficking and opioid abuse.

State-paid staffers claimed they felt uncomfortable with the guidance, the paper reported. According to the outlet, staffers were confused by the chain of command and did not know whether to answer to the consultants or Hawley’s chief of staff.

The Star noted that having Hawley’s campaign staff run meetings on government property wasn’t necessarily against the state law. However, if the meetings were focused on his future Senate campaign, then the actions would violate a constitutional prohibition on using state resources for personal or political purposes.

McCaskill suggested at the end of the campaign that Hawley may have committed a crime by having political advisers manage his office, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted.

"It is against the law to use state resources for political gain," McCaskill, a former prosecutor in Kansas City, said. "You cannot use taxpayer-paid staff to assist in any political purpose. The last attorney general went to prison for utilizing his office and his state staff to promote him politically. Those are the facts."

Brendan Fischer, director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center’s federal reform program, told The Star that the allegations against Hawley were “problematic.”

“The idea that Hawley would turn over his attorney general’s office to D.C. campaign consultants strikes me as very problematic,” Fischer said. “The attorney general’s office has an enormous amount of responsibility for protecting the health and welfare of citizens of the state.”

-- Updated 6:35 p.m.