Following a Missouri judge’s determination that the Attorney General’s office “knowingly and intentionally” violated the state’s open records law while run by current United States Senator Josh Hawley, the plaintiffs in the case say they must pay more than $300,000 in attorney fees.
In November, Cole County Judge Jon Beetem ruled that the Attorney General’s Office violated the Sunshine Act by taking steps to hide emails between Hawley’s taxpayer-funded staff and his political advisers during his 2018 campaign for the United States Senate.
The motivation for breaking the law, the judge concluded, was concerns that releasing the documents could harm Hawley’s campaign.
Beetem ordered the attorney general’s office to pay $12,000 in civil penalties — the maximum allowed under state law — plus attorney fees.
The plaintiffs in the case, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, filed a motion for attorney fees earlier this month asking the judge to award $306,000. Hourly rates for attorneys involved in litigation ranged from $550 per hour up to $1,200 per hour.
The full amount should be awarded, the plaintiffs argue, because “DSCC has achieved complete success on all of its claims, a result which reflects the high quality of services rendered by the attorney in this case.”
Furthermore, the Attorney General’s Office “strongly defended the matter, forcing the DSCC to incur significant expenses.”
The judge recognized the importance of the case, the plaintiffs argue, when he imposed the maximum possible penalty.
“This case is particularly important given both (the Attorney General’s Office) role as the Sunshine Enforcement Entity and the practical outcomes of (the Office’s) decision to withhold these documents from the then political opponent Attorney General Hawley,” they wrote in their court filing.
Eric Schmitt became attorney general in 2019, after Hawley was sworn in to the US Senate. Andrew Bailey took over as attorney general earlier this month after Schmitt also joined the US Senate.
A spokeswoman for Bailey said the previous administration under Schmitt “chose not to appeal the ruling.”
“As stewards of taxpayer dollars,” he said, “our office will always work to protect Missourian hard-earned money from exorbitant legal fees.”
The emails in question were requested by the DSCC in late 2017. Hawley’s office told the DSCC at the time it had “searched our records and found no responsive records”.
But a year after the request was denied, The Kansas City Star revealed that Hawley and his staff had used private email rather than their government accounts to communicate with out-of-state political advisers who would continue to run the campaign. of Hawley in the United States Senate.
Among those included in the private email discussions was Daniel Hartman, who was the attorney general’s office record keeper at the time.
The DSCC filed a lawsuit in 2019.
In his November order, Beetem agreed that Hartman was aware of the existence of communications responding to the DSCC request and that he should deliver them. It appears he didn’t do it, concluded Beetem, because he could have been politically damaging to Hawley.
“Then Attorney General Hawley was actively running for U.S. Senate at the time of these requests, which were presented by a national party committee in support of his opponent,” Beetem wrote in his ruling. “The requested documents showed – at the very least – questionable use of government resources.”
Furthermore, Beetem wrote, the fact that public business was conducted on private email accounts — in violation of the Attorney General’s Office policy — is “in itself evidence of a conscious design, intent, or plan to hide these potentially controversial documents from public view.”
This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.