Audit: Missouri Sen. Hawley used state vehicle for politics

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley made campaign stops while traveling in a state vehicle during his time as Missouri’s attorney general, an audit released Thursday found.

The review by the office of state Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat who is trying to unseat Republican Gov. Mike Parson, found Hawley stopped for political events while using a government vehicle and security detail leading up to his successful bid for Senate. Hawley, who was elected attorney general in 2016, unseated former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill two years later.

In response to the audit, Hawley filed a complaint against Galloway with the state Board of Accountancy on Thursday. It’s his latest attack claiming the audit was politically biased against him.

Galloway called his repeated public criticisms, which began before the audit was publicly released, a “misinformation campaign.”

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“I assume he did not like what this audit said,” Galloway told reporters gathered in her Capitol office Thursday.

The audit report says Hawley’s driver and security detail took specific hours of leave from state time and were reimbursed by Hawley’s federal campaign fund. But auditors wrote that the state was not reimbursed for travel or other expenses related to the political stops.

In one example, Hawley in June 2017 took a government vehicle to Kansas City to meet with a police organization and a newspaper. But his itinerary also showed that he went to a local Republican Party event later that day. According to the audit, no campaign funds were used to pay the driver and security detail who accompanied Hawley.

In a response to the audit, Hawley attorney Brian Barnes said the event was to honor law enforcement and that he spoke in his official capacity. Barnes said in general, political work while traveling was “incidental” to Hawley’s official work.

Galloway’s office also found trips using state vehicles that included what appear to be personal stops, such as a December 2017 trip with his wife to a Kansas City Chiefs game that Hawley said he was asked to attend as part of his work as attorney general.

In a January email to auditors, Hawley’s attorney said he’ll pay any remaining expenses but isn’t aware of any outstanding invoices.

The audit also notes that his federal campaign committee back-paid some of those travel expenses from March and April 2017 in September 2017, the month after he officially launched his exploratory committee for U.S. Senate. A spokeswoman for Hawley has said that was a “clerical mistake,” but auditors found he never corrected his campaign records to reflect that.

Past statewide officials have faced similar questions about their use of state vehicles. Then-Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon repaid more than $47,000 for using state vehicles and employees for political purposes, and Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder reimbursed the state more than $7,000 for nonofficial trips.

Other findings in the audit of Hawley include work between attorney general staff and Hawley campaign consultants that auditors wrote gave “the appearance of political activity by state employees while using state resources, but no evidence exists that any laws were violated.” The audit is critical of Hawley’s office for not better documenting those interactions and for using personal emails and phones to discuss public business, despite a policy adopted by Hawley forbidding that.

Claims that Hawley misused public resources to boost his successful U.S. Senate campaign were prompted by a complaint filed by The American Democracy Legal Fund, a liberal group, after The Kansas City Star reported political consultants influenced the attorney general’s office during Hawley’s tenure.

The newspaper obtained records that show out-of-state political consultants that went on to work for Hawley’s Senate campaign also advised his staff in the Attorney General’s Office. The records show campaign consultants gave direct guidance and tasks to Hawley’s state staff.

Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft in a December 2018 letter asked Galloway to “investigate these allegations as part of your audit of the Missouri Attorney General’s Office that will take place due to the change in officeholder.” State law mandates audits of statewide elected officials after they leave office.

Hawley’s campaign blasted the audit as politically biased weeks before it was released publicly, meaning Galloway’s office was barred by state law from responding at that time.

“With the 2018 election in the books and a full investigation having exonerated Mr. Hawley, one might have thought that Missouri Democrats would be ready to move on,” Barnes wrote in a response to the audit. “But State Auditor and gubernatorial candidate Nicole Galloway apparently saw political advantage in retreading this ground.”

Republicans directed much of their frustration about the audit toward an internal email that an auditor accidentally sent to the current Attorney General’s Office discussing the audit.

“I’m thinking I’ll just drop the confidentiality paragraph in the report and beef up the personal email/personal calendar section,” audit manager Pam Allison wrote in an August 2019 email.

Barnes wrote that the email confirms the audit was politically motivated, alleging that when auditors “could not make one charge stick, they beefed up others.”

Allison told reporters on Thursday that the email shows “evidence that the audit team was appropriately evaluating audit evidence” by nixing potential findings when disproved and then refocusing on evidence that supports another concern. She said she grew up on a beef cattle ranch in southwestern Missouri where calves were later sent to a feedlot to be “beefed up or finished,” so she uses the term often.

Hawley’s lawyer also pointed to a staffer who worked on the audit and gave McCaskill a $50 campaign donation in 2018. In response to complaints from Hawley, Galloway’s office replaced the staffer with a new audit manager.

Galloway told reporters Thursday that the mistake the staffer made was “having a political opinion that was different from Sen. Hawley’s.”

Other complaints raised by Hawley include Galloway’s hiring of former McCaskill campaign manager David Kirby to be the Auditor’s Office lobbyist. The audit notes that Kirby “was excluded entirely from any discussions or decisions pertaining to this audit.”

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