CHARLESTON — The threat of a lawsuit encouraged U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart to release documents showing his office spent nearly $90,000 on radio ads, including ads advocating against state-level legislation.
The West Virginia Chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative free-market public advocacy group, released emails released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia. The Freedom of Information Act release was a result of a lawsuit filed by AFP last month after Stuart’s office had ignored their information requests.
The emails show communication between Stuart, who was appointed as U.S. attorney by President Donald Trump, Deanne Eder, the spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and West Virginia Radio Corp., home of the MetroNews radio network.
According to invoices provided, the U.S. Attorney’s Office paid for $86,730 in radio public service announcements. This includes $8,110 for 23 ads ran between Feb. 17-21 raising concerns about criminal justice reform efforts just as the West Virginia Legislature was debating criminal justice reform bills.
At least 12 criminal justice reform bills passed the Legislature by the end of the 60-day session on March 8. These bills included efforts to reform bail and civil asset forfeiture, the creation of a sentencing commission, alternative sentencing for work release and expungement of past crimes.
“We’re making progress, great progress, but trust me, it’s not because we’re hugging the bad guys,” Stuart said in one of the ads. “Bail reform and other social justice initiatives threaten to reverse course. There’s only one way to kill a snake. You got to take the head completely off.”
Two emails included in the FOIA request seem to indicate that the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, a federal agency that oversees 93 U.S. Attorneys across all 50 states and territories, had concerns with the PSAs coming from Stuart’s office. According to a March 25 email from Eder to Stuart, she reminded the U.S. Attorney about what they told Wyn Hornbuckle, deputy director of the Office of Public Affairs.
“Please remember, we told Wyn that you weren’t planning to place any new PSAs until after the election and we would run scripts by him before placement,” Eder wrote Stuart.
In a Feb. 13 email from Eder to someone in the Office of Public Affairs, Eder said she had shared the person’s thoughts on PSAs and public messaging with Stuart.
“(Stuart) wants you to know he totally ‘gets it,’” Eder wrote. “He doesn’t plan to do additional PSAs for quite a while (at least not until after the election), but any future PSAs will be done with your full participation (approval of scripts as we discussed).”
A request for comment from Hornbuckle and the Executive Office for United States Attorneys was not returned.
Stuart’s PSAs, titled “crime” and “fraud,” alternated running between Feb. 17 through the end of March, followed by a PSA for COVID-19 starting March 27. Some of the “crime” and “fraud” PSAs ran for free, but most were charged to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
AFP-WV filed an FOIA request April 1 with Stuart’s office for records pertaining to a public service announcement campaign. They filed a lawsuit July 9 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Department of Justice after Stuart’s office ignored the FOIA. Stuart’s office released 90 pages of emails to AFP on July 24.
Jason Huffman, state director of AFP-WV, said the lawsuit against the Department of Justice would continue due to concerns over the thoroughness of the FOIA documents submitted, missing attachments in the emails and the use of redactions. Huffman said he was also concerned with what looks like emails forwarded by Stuart to a private email address.
“The records may be incomplete, and key information could be missing that prevents West Virginians from seeing the decision-making process on how a federal official was spending U.S. taxpayer dollars,” Huffman said in a statement. “From the lack of a sincere, adequate, and timely response to citizens’ request for records, there is cause for much concern on how this US Attorney’s office respects West Virginians’ rights to more transparency. We urge the US Attorney’s office to release the full documents without redactions to help West Virginians better understand how these ads were produced.”
Eder, in an email Thursday afternoon, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office had no comment regarding AFP’s claims. But in a 2011 press release during his time as chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party, Stuart had a different opinion on spending taxpayer dollars for radio PSAs. At the time, he criticized former Democratic state attorney general Darrell McGraw for similar tactics.
“Darrel McGraw is shamefully wasting taxpayer dollars in what is a thinly veiled effort to build his name ID in advance of next years(sic) election,” Stuart said at the time. “The Attorney General needs to provide a full accounting to the taxpayers of the tens of thousands of wasted dollars associated with his personal radio campaign including the dollars used to produce and develop the advertisements.”