KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft allowed Solicitor General Josh Sauer, a top supporter of Josh Hawley, to sit in on interviews during an investigation into whether Hawley illegally used government resources during his U.S. Senate campaign, according to documents obtained by The Kansas City Star .
The documents obtained through an open records request include emails between Ashcroft's office and Sauer, who was first assistant when Hawley was attorney general and donated $10,816 to his attorney general campaign and the maximum $5,400 to his U.S. Senate campaign.
Ashcroft announced last week that his investigation found no evidence to show Hawley inappropriately used public resources in his successful Senate campaign.
On Jan. 2, Sauer emailed Ashcroft's office that he had asked to "participate on behalf of the (attorney general's office) in any such interviews, meetings, or discussions with former (attorney general's office) employees." He said the secretary of state's office agreed to allow him to be present and ask follow-up questions if witnesses agreed.
Ashcroft's spokeswoman, Maura Browning, said the witnesses made it clear they would participate only if Sauer was present.
Some legal experts said the arrangements could compromise Ashcroft's conclusions.
"As a general rule, no serious investigator, civil or criminal, would voluntarily invite representatives of the party being investigated to sit in on initial witness interviews," said Frank Bowman, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law. "Not only is there an intimidation factor, particularly where the target is a sitting U.S. senator, but letting the target be represented in the interviews allows the target to shape his own response and to coach potential witnesses."
But George Washington Law Professor Stephen Saltzburg said one elected official often extends courtesy when investigating another official, so nobody thinks it's a politically motivated witch hunt.
"It does mean that the attorney general's in a position to try to potentially influence witnesses, but that's a risk that the Secretary of State was willing to take in the interest of transparency," Salzburg said. "There's nothing that shows me that somehow the attorney general is getting a break."
The new documents also show Ashcroft's office permitted Hawley and his out-of-state political consultants to answer questions in writing rather than appear for interviews. Browning said the attorney general's office doesn't have authority to compel witnesses to answer questions through a subpoena and some of the witnesses agreed to answer only written questions.
Ashcroft started his investigation last year after a complaint filed by The American Democracy Legal Fund, a liberal nonprofit, which referenced an Oct. 31 article by The Star about how political consultants helped steer the attorney general's office under Hawley's watch.
In written answers to questions, two of Hawley's out-of-state consultants confirmed that they advised the attorney general's office staff starting in January 2017, shortly after Hawley's became attorney general. Both said their consulting role in the office ended before August 2017, when Hawley announced he was considering running against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Ashcroft determined that Hawley hired the political consultants to advance his priorities as attorney general and said he found no evidence the consultants promoted Hawley as a candidate.
Kelli Ford, Hawley's spokeswoman, demanded an apology from The Star.
"It's time for The Kansas City Star to apologize for its misleading and dishonest reporting, now conclusively refuted, and report the facts rather than continuing its embarrassing and ideological crusade," Ford said.
Asked what specifically has been refuted in the paper's reporting, Ford did not respond.
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com