JEFFERSON CITY • The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Monday filed a lawsuit against the Missouri attorney general’s office, alleging the office violated the Sunshine Law by denying Democrats public documents when then-Attorney General Josh Hawley was running for U.S. Senate.
The lawsuit, filed in Cole County Circuit Court, asks the court to order the release of records the Democrats requested. The Democrats asked in September 2017 and March 2018 for emails between staffers in Hawley’s office and paid campaign operatives, the lawsuit says. They did not receive any documents.
Hawley’s office told the DSCC there were no responsive records.
But, in the closing days of the November 2018 election, the Kansas City Star reported that political consultants Gail Gitcho and Timmy Teepell directed taxpayer-paid staff in Hawley’s office.
The article confirmed that there were, in fact, records of communications between political consultants and the attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office also produced documents to Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office in December that prove there were responsive records, the lawsuit says.
“It is now clear that the AG’s Office not only possessed the requested documents, but it purposely and knowingly withheld them from DSCC, and it has advanced no argument — nor could it — that the documents are properly closed under the Sunshine Law,” the lawsuit says.
The Democrats ask the court to assess civil penalties against the attorney general’s office for “purposely and knowingly” violating the Sunshine Law.
Hawley, a Republican, defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in the November 2018 election. Kelli Ford, spokeswoman for Hawley, said in an email the lawsuit was a “joke” and “yet another frivolous political suit” but she did not directly refute any points made in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit names attorney general’s office special counsel Michael Martinich-Sauter and the attorney general’s office, which is now led by Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican.
Mark Pedroli, a St. Louis County attorney who previously sued former Gov. Eric Greitens over his Sunshine Law compliance, is also representing the Democrats in the case, along with attorneys from the Washington office of the Perkins Coie law firm.
Ford noted that one of the attorneys suing Hawley’s former office is Perkins Coie attorney Marc Elias, who has worked for McCaskill.
“The Democrat Senatorial Campaign Committee has teamed up with Claire McCaskill’s personal lawyer to file yet another frivolous political suit,” she said. “Democrats lost the 2018 election. Accept it.”
Daniel Hartman, who was Hawley’s custodian of records, previously said the office acted in “good faith” when processing Sunshine Law requests. Hartman, who also worked on Hawley’s 2016 campaign for attorney general, now works in Hawley’s Senate office as state director.
“For every request, the Office engaged in a diligent search of its records to determine responsiveness, and conducted a rigorous analysis of whether any of the numerous factors set out in Chapter 610 applied,” Hartman told the Star. “Each determination under the Sunshine Law was made carefully and in good faith.”
Schmitt has not commented on the open records dispute, declining to say whether his office has launched an investigation into Hawley’s Sunshine Law compliance.
“We have nothing further to add at this time,” Schmitt spokesman Chris Nuelle said on Monday.
But, he said, “Attorney General Eric Schmitt is dedicated to preserving, protecting, and enforcing the Missouri Sunshine Law, and we work every day to ensure that Sunshine Law requests are handled properly and efficiently.”
As attorney general, Hawley was charged with enforcing the state’s Sunshine Law. He often complained that his office did not have subpoena power in such matters and pushed lawmakers to give him a broader reach.
Hawley backed legislation that would have created a new division in the attorney general’s office whose sole focus would be investigating violations of the Sunshine Law.