Republican Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is seeking higher office less than two years after being elected into his first public seat. His U.S. Senate race against incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill is deadlocked and is one of the most closely watched in the country.
As the state’s chief legal officer, he’s known for pursuing some high-profile lawsuits while also being accused of skirting some investigations. He’s driven by a belief in conservative policies but has also immersed his office in non-partisan priorities.
Hawley’s office is investigating July’s Duck Boat tragedy in Branson that took 17 lives and is suing the business’s owners and operators. The legal action is being taken under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act which provides consumer-protections.
This past Monday, Hawley filed court documents to counter the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case and move it to federal court. The filing stated that defense actions were an effort to “hamper and delay the state’s enforcement action”. Hawley also pushed back on the defendants’ contention that they’re only subject to the regulation and oversight of the U.S. Coast Guard, saying the state is instead focused on fraudulent, misleading, and deceptive trade practices. “Their misconduct is regulated by the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act and subject to the oversight of the Missouri Attorney General,” says Hawley.
The suit alleges that the defendants made, “misrepresentations to consumers that safety was a top priority when in actuality it was their own profits.” Hawley thinks the fact that two boats were in the water during a severe thunderstorm warning reflects a practice of putting profits over safety.
“We believe that the companies have a policy of refunding the ticket price to consumers if the tour boat does not enter the water,” says Hawley. “So, the companies had a strong financial incentive to actually get these boats out into the water even though there was significant adverse weather.”
The lawsuit asks the court to block the owners from operating duck boats in the state until further notice. Hawley contends the vessels pose a risk to citizens.
In addition, Hawley recently sued a southeast Missouri swimming venue known for alcohol and dare-devil diving where nine people have died over the years. The lawsuit seeks to shut down the business, “Offsets”, as a public nuisance.
Hawley acknowledges he doesn’t have criminal jurisdiction but says the civil suit has teeth.
“This action is a significant one in that it would shut down this operation,” says Hawley. “There are various civil penalties, including damages, that could be assessed. So, we will continue to move forward.”
The Offsets by law has 30-days to respond to the lawsuit and has continued to operate in the interim.
Hawley claimed a major victory earlier this year when a St. Louis court tossed out an attempt by pharmaceutical companies to block his lawsuit against them. The complaint alleges Purdue Pharma, Endo Health, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals fraudulently misrepresented the serious risks posed by the drugs they manufacture and sell.
Within the state, the attorney general’s office is conducting a probe of all four Missouri Catholic dioceses after revelations of sexual abuse of children by clergy in Pennsylvania. The dioceses submitted to the investigations voluntarily.
In August, Hawley brought a court case against the St. Louis Housing Authority and the company that manages the Clinton Peabody Housing Complex for failing to fix mold, infestations, and structural issues at the complex. Media outlets, including Missourinet, have reported on rodent infestation.
Hawley’s spokesperson, Mary Compton, says the Attorney General’s Office has roughly 40,000 matters before it at any given time.
Even though he’s a relative novice to public office, Hawley has jumped into several lawsuits with multiple attorneys general from other states that are politically charged.
The most high-profile case is a 20-state lawsuit led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a fellow Republican which seeks to invalidate the Affordable Care Act. The health care law established under Democratic President Barack Obama has long been a target of the GOP.
Hawley says the lawsuit is meant to eliminate an intrusive regulation. “The intent is to prevent the government from telling people what they can and cannot do with their healthcare,” Hawley says. “The intent is to free folks from the burden of Obamacare.”
Doing away with the health care law would do away with its protections including those for pre-existing conditions. Senator McCaskill has based much of her reelection campaign on preserving the requirement to cover pre-existing conditions and has hammered Hawley over the lawsuit.
Hawley says he favors keeping the provision for pre-existing conditions in place and claims it can be done while still doing away with Obamacare.
In his short tenure as Missouri’s chief legal officer, Hawley has also led other states into federal courts. He filed the lawsuit for a dozen states in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block a California law which requires any eggs sold there to come from hens that have space to stretch out in cages.
California voters approved a ballot measure in 2008 requiring the specific treatment of chickens, which gave farmers until 2015 to comply. That lawsuit is ongoing. Hawley recently characterized the California law as an infringement on the freedoms of Missouri farmers.
“They’re trying to tell you, our farmers, how you can farm,” Hawley said. “They have gone so far as to send inspectors, inspectors into our state and other states to see if we’re raising our chickens in the right way.” Hawley made the statement while addressing an annual gathering at the Missouri Farm Bureau in August.
Watching over Jefferson City
Hawley’s performance in pursuing wrongdoing with within state government draws differing responses depending who’s being asked.
He has investigated former Republican Governor Eric Greitens several times. One of the probes led to felony charges in St. Louis after Hawley said he found evidence Greitens had used a donor list from a charity that he founded to raise money for his 2016 campaign.
Other investigations into the controversy-plagued former governor were inconclusive. Hawley investigated Greitens’ social media for alleged Sunshine Law violations three times and the governor’s use of the Confide text erasing app.
Each time his office said a lack of jurisdiction or subpoena power contributed to dropping the inquiry or clearing Greitens of wrongdoing. Hawley took heat from Democrats, especially over the Confide investigation after he reported no evidence of wrongdoing.
Hawley’s office likewise found no evidence of wrongdoing by Democratic State Auditor Nicole Galloway or her office in a similar investigation. In Hawley’s probes, senior staff in both offices were interviewed, though neither Greitens nor Galloway spoke to the attorney general’s investigators.
As the state’s chief legal officer, Hawley could argue that he has been productive for Missourians. Lately, he’s been hitting the campaign trail heading toward the election. If he’s elected to the U.S. Senate, he will have served as the state’s attorney general for two years, one of the shortest tenures for the seat.
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