Complaint alleges Jay Ashcroft campaign letter runs afoul of ethics law

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a candidate for governor (Photo by Rudi Keller - Missouri Independent)
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(Missouri Independent) – A Jay Ashcroft campaign letter that attacked his opponents Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe as a closeted Democrat and state Sen. Bill Eigel as a “political gadfly” shows illegal coordination between his gubernatorial campaign committee and a political action committee, a complaint to the Missouri Ethics Commission states.

Ashcroft’s campaign is denying the allegations.

The complaint, filed by Democratic attorney and lobbyist Jane Dueker, alleges that the $5,244.84 paid by the Committee for Liberty to send the letter – equal to the cost paid by Ashcroft for Missouri – should have been reported as an in-kind contribution to the campaign. 

It exceeds the $2,825 limit on contributions to the campaign committee, with messaging that represents an illegal level of coordination, the complaint states.

“Quite plainly, the letter is an advocacy piece, poorly masquerading as a fundraising letter,” Dueker wrote in her complaint.

The letter does not cross any legal lines, said Jason Roe, a Michigan-based consultant working for Ashcroft’s campaign.

“We’re not doing voter persuasion,” Roe said. “We’re doing fundraising so she’s trying to take one form of political activity and label it a different form of political activity.”

On Wednesday morning, Ashcroft’s campaign sent out a fundraising email attacking Dueker for her complaint. It accuses her of trying to use the law to defeat him.

“Their tactics will not intimidate me and I will continue to fight the liberals who are trying to destroy our country,” the email states.

Complaints to the ethics commission are confidential unless released by the complaining party. The commission does not comment on complaints until it has completed its review and issues findings.

Ashcroft, secretary of state since 2017, is one of nine Republicans running in the Aug. 6 primary. He has been leading consistently in polls, with Kehoe and Eigel also showing strength and none of the other candidates registering in surveys.

There are five Democratic candidates, with Missouri House Minority Leader Crystal Quade and businessman Mike Hamra – both from Springfield – running full-scale campaigns.

Dueker has not contributed to any candidate for governor.

The March 8 letter discusses Ashcroft’s place in the polls and that he is behind Kehoe in fundraising. It then turns to attack Kehoe for supporting tax increases for state roads, the increase in the state budget while he has held the state’s second-highest, and his votes as a state Senator to allow foreign ownership of farmland.

“Who needs a Democrat in the Governor’s mansion when you have Mike Kehoe?” the letter states.

The only mention of Eigel is in a section on poll results, which the letter states show “13% for political gadfly Bill Eigel.”

The letter has Ashcroft’s signature and a statement at the bottom that it was paid for by Ashcroft for Missouri and the Committee for Liberty.

The letter has a section touting Ashcroft’s stands and actions as secretary of state, and stating that “as governor, I promise you I will make Missouri a conservative leader for America.”

Contribution limits to candidate campaign committees were added to the Missouri Constitution in 2016 for candidates seeking state office and for political parties, with lower amounts set for legislative candidates in a 2020 ballot measure. As a result, supporters of candidates also set up political action committees, which can accept donations of any size.

A candidate may raise funds on behalf of the PAC but cannot direct how it spends money or the messages it uses to persuade voters. Every major candidate for statewide office has a joint fundraising PAC, as do most members of the state Senate and many in the Missouri House.

“It’s no longer independent when it agrees on a message with the campaign,” Dueker said. “If they are jointly expending money on something, I believe that is coordination.”

The messaging is intended to convince the potential donor to write a check to Ashcroft, Roe said, not to persuade anyone to vote for him. The points made are the same as made on Ashcroft’s campaign website, he said.

Even the promise to make Missouri a “conservative leader” is a fundraising appeal, he said.

“That does not say vote for Jay Ashcroft,” Roe said. “That merely represents why he would be a candidate worth making a donation to.”

The letter only went out to “proven Republican donors” who have given to Ashcroft or other GOP candidates in the past, Roe said.

“If it were me communicating ‘vote for Jay Ashcroft’ or anything like that, we cannot do that,” Roe said.

A spokesperson for the Committee for Liberty could not be reached for comment.

Under state campaign finance law, a campaign must report the retail value of goods or services donated as an in-kind contribution in the same report where cash donations are disclosed. 

“The letter is an obviously coordinated communication,” the complaint states. “Every dime (the) Committee for Liberty spent on it is an in-kind contribution to Ashcroft for Missouri.”

By coordinating on the messages in the letter, the campaign and PAC have colluded on a plan for the primary contest, Dueker said.

“This is messaging that will go on throughout the campaign, and that’s exactly why I think this crosses the line because this will affect the campaign going forward,” she said. “It was open and notorious.”

(Photo by Rudi Keller – Missouri Independent)

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Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy, and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.