ST. LOUIS — Josh Hawley’s tenure as Missouri’s attorney general has been brief. And turbulent.
Mr. Hawley, a Republican who is now trying to unseat Senator Claire McCaskill in one of the most closely watched races in the country, took up the job less than two years ago. A former law professor and clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts, he brought a conservative intellectual pedigree but little management experience to the attorney general’s office, where his campaign says he has gained “a reputation for taking on the big and the powerful.”
But a review of public records and internal documents, as well as interviews with current and former employees, reveals a chaotic tenure as attorney general that has been costly for state taxpayers. Judges have criticized the office over its slow pace of discovery, and Mr. Hawley’s staff had to renege on a settlement in a high-profile civil case.
Mr. Hawley also quietly closed the environmental division and failed to fully vet one of his top supervisors, who departed after a female attorney in the office complained about his conduct. And his deputies took an unusual approach in an investigation of the governor’s office, largely acceding to demands to limit interviews of the governor’s staff to 15 minutes, internal records obtained by The New York Times show.
And while Mr. Hawley focused on politicized issues, like joining a federal effort to dismantle Obamacare, his office was hollowed out of experienced litigators, leading to a sharp increase in settlement costs.
The interviews and documents provide a deep look into Mr. Hawley’s oversight of the attorney general’s office, which has emerged as a vexing campaign issue for him in his dead-heat race against Ms. McCaskill. After promising he would not be the typical career politician who was “climbing the ladder,” he announced he would run for the Senate only nine months after taking office.
Democrats — and even some Republicans — in Missouri have accused him of being a political opportunist uninterested in his official duties as the state’s top prosecutor, and the turmoil in the attorney general’s office has added to the questions about his leadership skills.
The biggest problems in the office under Mr. Hawley have come in the civil litigation division, which defends the state against lawsuits. Only a single litigator who worked under Mr. Hawley’s predecessor is left in the main office in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital. And the problem extends beyond the transition; eight civil litigation attorneys hired under Mr. Hawley have already left, in a division typically staffed by 25 to 30 lawyers.
Without experienced lawyers, settlement and judgment costs climbed. The state paid $35 million out of its legal expense fund for the 2018 fiscal year, compared with roughly $22 million combined in 2015 and 2016, the last two full fiscal years under the previous attorney general, Chris Koster. (The 2017 fiscal year straddled both administrations.)
Those costs could soar further, depending how much of a recent $113.7 million judgment against the state survives appeal, in a suit involving allegations that prison guards were systematically underpaid.
Gary Burger, the St. Louis trial lawyer who won that verdict, said the state’s defense team was hindered by turnover.
“One, two, three lead trial lawyers this year, at least three, it kept changing, and that was evident in the trial,” he said. “It’s highly unusual. This is a big case.”
Mr. Hawley declined a request to be interviewed. Mary Compton, a spokeswoman, said “the vast majority of cases settled since January 2017 originated in prior administrations” — Mr. Hawley’s two immediate predecessors were Democrats. She added that turnover across the entire office had been low and that Mr. Hawley has made settlement spending more transparent.
The prison guard case was hardly the only problematic one for the office. Significant turmoil unfolded under Michael Quinlan, who was hired by Mr. Hawley to head civil litigation. In one episode, Mr. Quinlan agreed to reinstate a Department of Corrections employee, Lori Walker, who had sued over discrimination. But the settlement was not vetted with the governor’s office, the ultimate client, which balked at reinstating Ms. Walker.
The attorney general’s office had to abandon its own settlement and an outside law firm was hired to negotiate a new one.
Mr. Quinlan, in an email exchange, said the settlement took place “in the third week of my tenure” and “resulted from a miscommunication owing to my unfamiliarity with the workings of the office.”
Under Mr. Quinlan, the office also struggled to produce documents. In court filings last year reported by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mr. Quinlan wrote that the “office lacked sufficient staff to make a proper review for privilege” and “was short-staffed by approximately one-sixth” of its normal complement of attorneys.
Some attorneys who worked in the office said a large part of the division’s problem stemmed from Mr. Hawley’s pick of Mr. Quinlan for such an important position. Before his hiring, Mr. Quinlan was a “mediator and conflict coach” at Christian Family Renewal, a marriage counseling group he founded. His LinkedIn profile indicated that his litigation experience took place mostly in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Mr. Quinlan had strong views on religious matters, as does Mr. Hawley, who had previously supported legislation aimed at keeping churches and businesses from being compelled to participate in same-sex marriages. Mr. Quinlan once wrote in Crisis, a conservative Catholic publication, about “the delusional foundations of modern secular culture” and “aberrations” like “sexual deviance, same-sex ‘marriage,’ gender-fluidity, human-robot ‘intimacy,’ and other high tech auto eroticism.”
He was also known as an outspoken defender of Bishop Robert W. Finn, then head of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri, who was found guilty of a misdemeanor after shielding a priest who took pornographic pictures of girls. Though Mr. Quinlan had been frequently quoted defending Bishop Finn, Ms. Compton, the spokeswoman for Mr. Hawley, said the attorney general’s office “was not aware of these comments prior to his hiring,” adding that “accusations of priest abuse are a serious matter.”
Mr. Quinlan left the office in December after nine months, weeks after a female attorney in the office complained about receiving an unwelcome lecture from him about her sex life.
Mr. Hawley’s office said it had “zero tolerance for these issues.”
“Before any complaint against Mr. Quinlan was lodged, the office had already been reviewing his performance,” Ms. Compton said, adding, “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.”
Mr. Quinlan, in an email, wrote, “I have never engaged in any conduct toward anyone that can fairly or reasonably be characterized as harassment of any kind.”
“I have never said or done anything with regard to anyone that was in any manner sexually charged or inappropriate,” he added. “I have always conducted myself with proper decorum and modesty in conduct and in speech.”
After answering some initial questions, Mr. Quinlan declined to speak further.
“I am entitled to my privacy and to be left out of the scorched earth, blood sport that is left wing political journalism,” he wrote in an email.
The litigation division has struggled to recover.
“There’s been massive turnover,” said Andrew Hirth, an attorney who served in the division under Mr. Hawley’s predecessor and has been critical of Mr. Hawley. “The litigation division is where you need to have people who know how to try cases. If you don’t have that, your options are to go to trial and roll the dice, or settle.”
Adding to the instability in the office’s top management was the departure of Evan Rosell, a lawyer who was serving as a Kansas City pastor when he was tapped to serve as Mr. Hawley’s chief of staff.
Ms. Compton called Mr. Rosell an experienced attorney whose “combination of legal background and staff management experience made him a good fit.” She said “he left after a year to return to his hometown of Wichita, Kan., where his family still lives.”
One of Mr. Hawley’s most prominent investigations came in the months before Gov. Eric Greitens, a fellow Republican, resigned this year amid a sex scandal. Mr. Hawley investigated Mr. Greitens’s staff for its use of a communications app called Confide that automatically deletes messages. The investigation, which examined whether the state’s record retention rules were violated, found no wrongdoing.
But internal messages obtained by The Times raised questions about the robustness of the inquiry. One text message sent by a senior aide to Mr. Greitens suggested she knew well ahead of time when the attorney general’s investigation would wrap up. And internal email traffic showed that Mr. Hawley’s deputies accommodated the governor’s office’s demand that interviews with members of the governor’s staff be limited to 15 minutes.
“We believe that the proposed 15 minute increments should suffice,” one of Mr. Hawley’s top lieutenants, Darrell L. Moore, wrote in an email to the governor’s office. He asked only that they be allowed an additional five minutes of “leeway in going over a little to finish up.”
That accommodation surprised Mark Pedroli, a St. Louis lawyer who is suing the state over the Confide matter. “I’ve conducted many depositions,” he said, “and the first 15 minutes is who are you, what’s your position, what does that entail, and what led you to be in the room. To get past that into the substance is impossible.”
Asked about the time limit, Ms. Compton said the attorney general’s office lacked statutory authority to compel the governor’s staff to testify.
Amid the missteps by Mr. Hawley’s office, some judges have expressed frustration. In one case, Sandra C. Midkiff, a circuit court judge in Kansas City, Mo., spent a hearing working over Mr. Hawley’s staff at its lagging efforts to produce documents, telling it at various points “you can’t have it both ways,” “you can’t hide the documents” and “I have heard three different versions of what happened or what did not happen.”
Much of the turmoil within Mr. Hawley’s office has been hidden from public view. Like many midterm races around the country, the Missouri Senate campaigns have jousted over roiling national debates, including tariffs, immigration and the bitter confirmation of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, in a state where Democrats are struggling to stay relevant.
And most of all, there is President Trump, who carried Missouri by 19 points in 2016.
“We love Josh,” Mr. Trump said at a rally with Mr. Hawley last month. “We love Josh. He’s a star,” adding, “It’s all going to start with Josh Hawley.”