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Mike Parson accused of illegally using office to meddle in primaries

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson congratulates Andrew Bailey on being appointed attorney general on Nov. 23, 2022 (photo courtesy of the Missouri Governor’s Office).
Missouri Independent
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson congratulates Andrew Bailey on being appointed attorney general on Nov. 23, 2022 (photo courtesy of the Missouri Governor’s Office).

A Republican candidate for attorney general called the governor's efforts to pressure a political organization to support Andrew Bailey "egregious and potentially illegal."

When he appointed Andrew Bailey as attorney general in late 2022, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson vowed he’d have “the full resources of the governor of the State of Missouri” to ensure his success in the new job.

“On the political side,” Parson added, “I’ll do everything I can.”

During Bailey’s transition into office, Parson dispatched his top staffers to offer assistance. And after numerous high-profile staff departures from the attorney general’s office, two Parson aides — his deputy general counsel and deputy policy director — joined Bailey’s team.

By September, the governor’s office turned its attention to a national political organization that Parson felt wasn’t properly supporting Bailey’s campaign for a full term.

In a letter to the executive committee of the Republican Attorneys General Association — written on official letterhead from the governor’s office — Parson chastised the organization for how it was treating Bailey.

He complained that a member of the organization’s staff was trying to “perpetuate the impression RAGA will not support Attorney General Bailey,” and took umbrage with the staffer making what Parson called a “petty statement” in a Politico article, which was attached to the letter.

“RAGA not supporting one of their own is quite unprecedented and deeply concerning,” Parson wrote in the letter to 10 attorneys general on RAGA’s executive committee and obtained by The Independent through a public records request.

He asked if RAGA leadership knew about these behind-the-scenes machinations, then hinted at the possibility that they could hurt support for a pair of attorneys general running for governor last year — David Cameron in Kentucky and Jeff Landry in Louisiana.

“I think this is important for my fellow governors to know, as we are being asked to support a number of your colleagues as well,” Parson wrote.

The governor’s office did not respond to several requests for comment. Bailey’s campaign said that while he was alerted to the letter’s existence by another attorney general, he remains unaware of its contents.

Yet Parson’s decision to use his office to pressure RAGA to support Bailey is drawing accusations that the governor may have violated a state law prohibiting the misuse of public resources for campaign purposes.

“That letter is an example of the governor using official taxpayer resources to advance a campaign agenda,” said Will Scharf, who is running against Bailey in the Republican attorney general primary. “It is egregious and potentially illegal.”

It appears Parson used official letterhead “to convey that the Office of the Governor is behind a certain political candidate,” said Delaney Marsco, senior legal counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center. “That’s not appropriate, and it’s not a good use of the public’s trust.”

Donald Sherman, senior vice president and chief counsel for the liberal watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the governor’s letter “stinks quite a bit.”

“Governors and other state officials should not use official taxpayer resources and the authority of their government offices for partisan politics,” he said.

The criticism echoes similar complaints last year when Parson’s department of labor spent $100,000 for a television advertisement that featured Bailey. And it comes after two GOP candidates for governor — state Sen. Bill Eigel and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft — publicly alleged Parson was using his office to boost the gubernatorial prospects of Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe with a press conference and executive order earlier this month pertaining to foreign ownership of Missouri land.

Parson, who can’t run again because of term limits, appointed Kehoe lieutenant governor in 2018. Kehoe appeared at the press conference but did not participate.

Eigel called the press conference an “in-kind contribution from Mike Parson’s government office” to Kehoe’s campaign, and Ashcroft’s campaign spokesman alleged the “stunt was designed to protect Kehoe from his record.”

Kehoe was asked to participate, Parson said during the press conference, because there was a chance the governor would not be able to attend due to the recent passing of his mother-in-law. A spokesperson for the lieutenant governor’s office said Kehoe was involved in the discussions of the executive order because of “his agriculture background and relationships with agriculture stakeholders across the state.”

Supporting an incumbent? 

The Republican Attorneys General Association has not endorsed in Missouri’s GOP primary, but its executive director — Peter Bisbee — donated $250 to Scharf’s campaign.

Politico reported in August that Scharf’s campaign was touting in a memo that “we do not expect RAGA to offer Bailey any support despite his status as a technical incumbent, a testament to the expected weakness of Bailey as a candidate and the expected strength of Scharf’s challenge.”

Scharf, a former assistant U.S. attorney who served as policy director for former Gov. Eric Greitens, also received a $500,000 campaign contribution last year from The Concord Fund, which is funded by groups connected to longtime conservative legal activist and Scharf supporter Leonard Leo.

The Concord Fund is by far the top contributor to the Republican Attorneys General Association.

According to Politico, Bisbee lobbied Parson’s office to appoint Scharf attorney general in 2022, allegedly warning that appointing someone else “is gonna create problems” for the governor’s office.

The position was being vacated by Eric Schmitt, who won a seat in the U.S. Senate and had long enjoyed support from RAGA. Schmitt previously served as vice chairman of RAGA’s executive committee, and he endorsed Bailey last month while also stating that Scharf is a “personal friend” and “an excellent candidate to hold the office.”

It was the Politico article that appears to have inspired Parson’s letter.

The story quoted Bisbee telling the governor’s office to “spend less time fueling childish gossip.”

Parson complained about the quote in his letter, and argued Bailey was being treated differently by RAGA than Schmitt despite both being appointed by Parson to the job. And he accused Bisbee of creating confusion “around the organization’s support for an opponent.”

Bisbee did not respond to requests for comment from The Independent.

Michael Hafner, Bailey’s campaign spokesperson, said the attorney general has a strong relationship with RAGA, “partnering with his fellow RAGA members on at least 159 issues, demonstrating his strong commitment to our shared conservative values.”

“General Bailey is proud,” Hafner said, “to join his Republican colleagues around the country to take Joe Biden to court, defend Missourians from the left’s attacks on our freedoms, and is proud to lead the charge nationally on many of the conservative legal movement’s most important fights.”

He accused Scharf of trying to “score cheap political points” by criticizing Parson’s letter.

Concerns about the use of official resources for campaigns have come up sporadically over the years in Missouri. And two of the highest profile examples involve attorneys general.

In 1993, former Attorney General Bill Webster pleaded guilty to two federal felony chargesrelated to using his state staff and office equipment for political purposes. Employees in Webster’s office laid out and printed campaign material on state time using state equipment.

In 2018, former Attorney General Josh Hawley was investigated by the secretary of state’s office and auditor’s office after it was revealed his campaign consultants helped run his taxpayer-funded office, including leading meetings during work hours in the state Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, where the attorney general’s office is located. Hawley also used a state car for campaign travel.

The secretary of state found no evidence Hawley violated election law. The auditor concluded that Hawley may have misused state resources, but whether he ultimately broke the law was unclear because the attorney general’s office conducted business off government servers through use of private email and text messaging.


Jason Hancock-Missouri Independent