U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley doesn't dispute the key facts in a recent audit of his short tenure as Missouri's attorney general.


He did bring in his out-of-state campaign consultants to help run the attorney general's office. His government staff did regularly use private email to communicate with each other and the consultants. And he did occasionally use a state car and driver for political travel.


But Hawley, a Republican, vehemently denies these actions were illegal or unethical, arguing allegations to the contrary are unfounded attacks by Democrats upset that he unseated former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2018.


Hawley's successor in the attorney general's office, Republican Eric Schmitt, has joined in criticizing the audit, questioning whether political bias tainted the process and accusing Democratic State Auditor Nicole Galloway of committing a felony by releasing transcripts of interviews conducted as part of her inquiry.


Yet despite his public support of Hawley, when Schmitt took over the attorney general's office in January 2019 he quickly discarded each of the controversial practices that were eventually outlined in Galloway's audit.


Schmitt's spokesman, Chris Nuelle, framed the changes as an effort to ensure the public that the attorney general's office operates ethically.


"Attorney General Schmitt and his office strive to be as ethical as possible in everything we do," Nuelle said in an email to The Star confirming that political consultants are no longer involved in official state business; state cars are never used for campaign travel; and the office's records policy was tightened to prohibit official business on personal devices.


In Washington, Hawley declined Monday to comment on Schmitt's decision to change policies once he took over the office and pointed to his previous criticism of the audit.


Rep. Gina Mitten, a St. Louis County Democrat, said it is clear to her that Hawley's actions as attorney general don't pass the smell test. As evidence, she points to Schmitt ending those practices upon taking office.


"It would seem to me," Mitten said, "that his successor certainly agreed that it wasn't appropriate behavior."


The 450-page report released last week focused on the question of whether Hawley or staff in the attorney general's office violated state and federal law prohibiting use of public resources for personal or political purposes.


The Star revealed in October 2018 that within weeks of being sworn in as attorney general, Hawley brought in his out-of-state campaign consultants to help direct his government office and raise his national profile.


The consultants and Hawley's government staff used private email accounts to communicate and organize meetings during work hours, occasionally in the state Supreme Court building in Jefferson City where the attorney general's main office is located.


Galloway's audit ultimately concluded that Hawley and his staff may have misused state resources, but the use of private email, text messaging and calendars made it impossible to say definitively whether or not any laws were broken.


Weeks before the audit was made public, Hawley cried foul.


Pointing out that Galloway is the presumptive Democratic nominee for Missouri governor, Hawley accused the auditor of using her office to score political points by attacking a Republican elected official.


His campaign said it was filing a complaint against Galloway with the Missouri State Board of Accountancy. On social media, Hawley suggested she should recuse herself from any future audits because of " rampant political manipulation in her office."


Schmitt went a step further, accusing Galloway of committing a felony by releasing the transcripts of interviews with Hawley's former staff. Those interviews, the attorney general said, should have been kept confidential.


Galloway dismissed Hawley's criticism, saying he was simply trying to discredit the auditor's office to shield himself from the audit's findings.


The auditor's office argues that there is no law that specifically prohibits the disclosure of sworn testimony gathered in the course of an audit. Transcripts were released in the interest of transparency, Galloway said, "so people could see the facts for themselves."