JEFFERSON CITY • A dark-money group connected to longtime GOP consultant Karl Rove is telling Missouri voters that Attorney General Josh Hawley "uncovered thousands" of untested sexual assault evidence kits in the state.
One Nation, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that is not required to reveal its donors, produced the advertisement. The organization said in a news release this month it spent $1.5 million on the ad purchase; the 30-second spot is running on broadcast and cable television, radio and on the internet.
The ad, however, leaves out context. Advocates, law enforcement and survivors of sexual violence have for years sounded the alarm on sexual assault evidence kits, or "rape kits," languishing.
On Oct. 29, the Columbia Missourian published an investigation on untested rape kits in Missouri, exposing widespread inaction. The newspaper reported on evidence gathering dust in crime labs, hospitals and police departments across Missouri. On Nov. 9, Hawley launched a statewide audit of untested rape kits, and cited the Missourian’s reporting in his announcement.
The ad makes no mention of advocacy efforts or newspaper reporting.
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets credit,” said Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “I do think the credit goes in large part to sexual assault survivors and their advocates who have raised these issues for years.”
Hawley, a Republican, is running for U.S. Senate this year against incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. The advertisement was just one of several recent moves in one of the country’s most high-profile U.S. Senate races.
The Republican-aligned group Americans for Prosperity announced a $2.1 million ad buy on Wednesday criticizing McCaskill’s 12 years in Washington, D.C. The ad is set to begin running on Thursday.
“In Missouri, many of these cases go unsolved because of the backlog of untested rape kits,” Beth Neland, a police detective in Smithville, Mo., says in the One Nation advertisement. “Attorney General Josh Hawley uncovered thousands of these untested rape kits. They contain the DNA evidence to bring these sexual predators to justice.”
On May 24, Hawley released the preliminary results of his audit, finding that law enforcement, health care providers and crime labs possessed at least 4,889 untested kits.
"He gave us our credit when he decided to do the audit," Anna Brett, the Missourian reporter who prompted Hawley's inquiry, said. "It's election season, and these things happen. And we're not — at the Missourian, we're not like, upset, because he did find some. You know, he did find thousands. We were the ones who said this was a statewide issue."
In addition to collecting responses from five state crime labs and 66 healthcare providers, Hawley had received information on untested rape kits from 266 law enforcement agencies, his office said in May.
According to state data, there are more than 650 law enforcement agencies in the state, suggesting only 40 percent of recipients responded to the attorney general's inquiry as of May.
"The audit is not done," Brett said. "There's more to uncover."
Chris Pack, spokesman for One Nation, said the group was not concerned about the accuracy of its piece.
“Hawley did an audit, released the findings he uncovered and is fighting for funding to test the rape kits,” Pack said. “We applaud him for his efforts and encourage him to keep up his fight to help victims of sexual assault.”
McCaskill’s campaign issued a news release after the ad aired, arguing in all caps that “Hawley’s investigation has not actually resulted in expedited testing of rape kits or discovery of untested rape kits; he simply aggregated the number of untested rape kits in the state.”
Indeed, Hawley has not claimed that the kits he accounted for were improperly hidden. The state has not historically had standards for storage and tracking of rape kits. And even though Hawley accounted for untested rape kits, the state still lacks the resources to process the backlog, Coble said.
This year, Missouri legislators approved new standards for tracking, testing and storage of rape kits. The law took effect on Tuesday. Coble said many stakeholders, including the attorney general’s office, had advocated for the bill’s passage.
Coble said that the new standards did not apply to kits created before Aug. 28 but that law enforcement and hospitals had started delivering more kits to the state’s crime lab as awareness of the problem has risen.
She said federal grant dollars would help the state work through the backlog as more agencies deliver kits to be tested.
Hawley’s office said in May that it applied for a $3 million Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant from the federal government to address existing kits. The grants are typically awarded in the fall.
Mary Compton, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, would not directly comment on the advertisement but said the Missourian did “important reporting to help bring this issue to the forefront.”
She said that Hawley launched the first rape kit audit of its kind in Missouri and that his office “identified thousands of rape kits that have never been tested.
“This Office is committed to seeing that every victim of sexual assault gets the justice they deserve,” Compton said in a statement.
"As far as getting the victims justice, I don't think that that justice has been served," Brett said. "He uncovered nearly 5,000 kits with only 40 percent (of law enforcement agencies responding). How many more are out there? How much more money and time is it going to take to test those? Which get tested first?"