BY SUMMER BALLENTINE
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Democratic political action committee is targeting Republican Missouri Senate candidate Josh Hawley for not investigating allegations of corruption involving a past top donor to Hawley’s attorney general campaign, although his authority to take action is limited.
A Senate Majority PAC ad claims Hawley is “refusing to investigate an allegedly illegal pay-to-play scheme involving a donor who gave Hawley’s campaign nearly $3 million.” Pay-to-play in political circles means when someone donates money to a campaign or an elected official and in return receives government favors.
Hawley is running for a chance to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in what’s expected to be a close race that could play a role in party control of the U.S. Senate.
At issue in the ad is a $100,000 donation Joplin businessman David Humphreys gave to state Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, also of Joplin.
Humphreys donated after Richard proposed legislation in 2016 that could have helped Humphreys’ shingle company as it faced consumer-protection lawsuits, although the donation also came shortly before new campaign contribution limits were to take effect in Missouri. Humphreys dumped money into several other campaigns around the same time, including Hawley’s, in a last-minute blitz. The legislation never received a full Senate vote and languished in the chamber. Both Richard and an attorney for Humphreys have said the allegations are false and denied any wrongdoing.
The Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint with a U.S. attorney in Missouri, but not to Hawley’s office. Spokesman Don Ledford said no federal charges have been filed by the U.S. attorney as a result. He said he cannot confirm or deny whether the complaint resulted in an investigation.
The Democratic PAC is trying to tie Hawley to the claims because Humphreys was a top donor to Hawley’s campaign for attorney general. Between 2015 and 2016, Humphreys gave Hawley more than $2.8 million.
“These are allegations, very serious allegations, and they involve a top donor and Hawley has chosen his political interests first,” Senate Majority PAC spokesman Chris Hayden said. “It is a pattern that he acts politically when it comes to his job.”
Hawley’s campaign spokeswoman, Kelli Ford, in a statement said the Democratic-funded PAC launched the ad to distract from McCaskill’s “liberal partisan voting record in opposing tax cuts, conservative judges, and building a wall.”
Hawley has limited power to take action such allegations of corruption. In Missouri, attorneys general have little initial authority to press criminal charges; local prosecutors generally must request help from the attorney general in order for the office to step in.
Hawley in 2017 told the Kansas City radio station KCUR in response to questions about the donation that the attorney general’s office “does not have criminal jurisdiction over pay-to-play allegations,” which his spokeswoman, Mary Compton, confirmed in a Friday statement. Hawley’s deputy chief of staff, Loree Anne Paradise, on Friday said the office did not receive any formal complaints about the pay-to-play allegations.
Hawley’s office does have broad discretion to launch investigations, which is what’s called for in the ad. But Jim Layton, who worked as solicitor general when Democrat Chris Koster was attorney general, said the office would not have the authority to issue subpoenas. He said that would mean investigators would need to rely on cooperation from witnesses.
If the investigation uncovered anything, Layton said the attorney general then would have to turn over evidence to local prosecutors for them to decide whether to file criminal charges.
The U.S. Senate primary election is Aug. 7. The general election is Nov. 6.
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