In February, amid the height of the #MeToo movement, Josh Hawley appeared to stand up for women.
The Missouri attorney general, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, signed on to a national letter endorsed by every attorney general in the country urging Congress to bring an end to secret, forced arbitration of sexual harassment complaints in the government workplace.
“A transparent government is a key (tenet) of democracy,” Hawley said. “Allowing our elected representatives to settle harassment claims in secret perpetuates bad behavior — and prevents constituents from knowing the true nature of their elected officials. We, as a nation, must do better to protect victims of sexual harassment and part of this is allowing them access to the judicial system in lieu of forced arbitration.”
A couple of weeks earlier, I had written about problems in Hawley’s office, many of them related to the short-lived stint of attorney Michael Quinlan, whom Hawley had hired to run the litigation section of the attorney general’s office. After that column ran, I heard from tipsters.
Check out Quinlan, they said. He was forced out after a sexual harassment complaint.
So I filed a Sunshine Law request with Hawley’s office. I asked for the sexual harassment complaint. I asked for Quinlan’s emails, and details of his separation of employment from the office.
I got virtually nothing. No complaint. No information about his forced resignation. Just some meaningless and unrelated emails and a statement from the attorney general’s office that some records were closed.
My sources didn’t want to go on the record, so I moved on.
The New York Times did not.
On Oct. 21, the Times, in a comprehensive story about Hawley’s difficulties running his office and dubious investigation into the use of a text-destroying app by the governor’s office, reported that Quinlan had resigned rather than be fired for sexual harassment. Hawley’s spokeswoman, Mary Compton, did not dance around the question.
“When the complaint was submitted, an investigation was immediately conducted, and Mr. Quinlan resigned in lieu of termination because of the complaint and for underperforming in his role as section head,” Compton told the Times.
The quote made me scratch my head.
It confirmed everything I had sought to verify through records from the attorney general’s office; but none of those records had been provided.
I thought back to that Hawley quote.
“Allowing our elected representatives to settle harassment claims in secret perpetuates bad behavior.”
So last week, I resubmitted my Sunshine Law request to Compton.
Maybe the office made a mistake, I thought. Maybe they’ll reconsider.
“The relevant records in this case are all individually identifiable personnel records, subject to closure,” Hawley’s spokeswoman wrote to me.
So, does this mean that all sexual harassment complaints in state government are, by definition, closed records? I asked. After all, the attorney general represents state government in such cases, and the attorney general is also supposed to be the state’s top enforcer of open records laws.
“Whether the personnel-records exemption applies to a particular document depends on a fact-intensive, case-specific inquiry,” Compton wrote. “We note, however, that confidential treatment of harassment complaints can provide important privacy protections for those who report harassment. Uniform public disclosure of such complaints could deter state employees from reporting misconduct by state officials.”
In other words, government transparency is fine when it applies to Congress, but when it comes to his office?
Harassers will be protected. Complaints will be kept secret.
Sadly, such hypocrisy has become a theme with Missouri’s attorney general.
On television, for instance, he says he supports forcing insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions. In court, he’s fighting to take such protections away.
In news releases, he said he conducted an intense investigation into former Gov. Eric Greitens’ use of a Sunshine Law-evading mobile phone app called Confide, which destroys text messages.
In reality, Clayton attorney Mark Pedroli has found through his lawsuit that Hawley interviewed select Greitens’ employees for a mere 15 minutes. Hawley accepted the governor’s word that eight employees used Confide, when the real number was 27. He didn’t even file a written Sunshine Law request for documents. He failed to uncover the evidence Pedroli has that use of Confide was widespread and almost surely violated state law.
Hawley was right in February when he said: “A transparent government” is a key tenet of democracy.
It’s too bad he doesn’t believe it.