Why won’t St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber release his email communications with the National Republican Congressional Committee? That would be the simplest way to resolve the controversy, which has now embroiled the county in a lawsuit over access to government records. That lawsuit will not only cost county taxpayers, potentially tens of thousands of dollars, but makes it appear (rightly or wrongly) that the county is cooperating with the Stauber campaign on some kind of cover-up.
It also creates an issue that can’t be welcome as Stauber campaigns for the Eighth District congressional seat now occupied by DFLer Rick Nolan. Why Stauber won’t put an end to the matter by simply releasing the emails is a valid question. To date, his actions suggest that the content of the emails could be embarrassing—and possibly worse than that.
We know that Stauber’s use of the county email system for political purposes was a violation of county policy. But, depending on the content of the emails, there could be a bigger infraction in play. The National Republican Congressional Committee is defined as a political action committee, and it’s one that makes tens of millions of dollars in so-called “independent expenditures,” during campaigns, either in favor of GOP candidates or, more likely, in attack ads against Democratic opponents.
Under federal election laws, political candidates are not allowed to communicate directly with groups like the NRCC to coordinate their activities and political messaging as it relates to these independent expenditures. To be accurate, we have no evidence at this point that Stauber might have engaged in such illegal coordination, but release of his emails could easily clear up the question.
This puts St. Louis County in a troubling position. If litigation eventually results in the release of the emails, and they reveal that Stauber engaged in potentially illegal coordination with the NRCC, it will appear that county officials withheld evidence of a federal crime and, in effect, provided aid to Stauber’s election effort by doing so. We can say, comfortably, that county officials don’t like being caught in the middle of a mess that Pete Stauber created. Privately, county officials acknowledge they’d like Stauber to just release the emails and leave the county out of it.
Stauber’s campaign suggests that the candidate is “abiding by the county’s decision,” not to release the emails, but that’s dishonest since the county is not releasing the emails only because Stauber doesn’t want them released. He is perfectly free, at any time, to make them public, at which point the county’s involvement goes away.
That’s why two of Stauber’s fellow commissioners, Tom Rukavina and Frank Jewell, publicly urged Stauber to release the emails to spare the county and its taxpayers from the burden of a lawsuit and the poor publicity for the county that the issue has already generated.
While the Stauber campaign and his supporters have been quick to dismiss the issue, Stauber’s email issue is remarkably similar to the one that plagued Hillary Clinton in 2016. In both instances, the candidates in question violated established policy for the use of their government email accounts, and both declined to release some of their communications. In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump publicly asked Russia to hack Hillary’s emails to release 30,000 communications that Clinton had declined to release, labeling them as personal.
Trump repeatedly implied that the emails would show evidence of wrongdoing and the issue, thanks in part to James Comey’s decision to publicly re-open a closed FBI investigation just 11 days before the election, likely helped lead to Trump’s narrow election.
It’s funny how the GOP frenzy over Clinton’s emails, which Trump still trots out during rallies to chants of “Lock Her Up,” hasn’t translated into concern about Stauber’s remarkably similar email problem. Or do the laws only apply to Democrats?
Political hypocrisy is nothing new, of course. But that doesn’t make it any less tiresome.