ST. LOUIS — When Missouri Governor Mike Parson appointed his government lawyer to become the state's Attorney General, he made a pointed pledge to boost Andrew Bailey's electoral prospects in the upcoming 2024 primary campaign.
"He's going to have the full resources of the governor of the state of Missouri," Parson said in November of 2022. "I picked him for that job. On the political side, I'll do everything I can to make sure of that."
The lines between Mr. Bailey's political pursuits and the use of public resources were blurred over the weekend when a newly published "educational video" produced by the Parson administration appeared on television station airwaves in the St. Louis media market.
The 30-second video, which was recorded in early March, shows Bailey seated in front of Missouri and U.S. flags inside a legal office of some kind. It's not immediately clear if Bailey shot the promotional video on government property.
"I'm Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey," he says directly into the camera. "As the state's chief legal officer, I will enforce the laws as written."
Critics said the substance and style of the video's content, which showcases Bailey investigating cases of undocumented immigrants working jobs without proper authorization, appeared more like a Republican primary campaign ad than a public service announcement.
The camera shot cuts away to video of Bailey signing a piece of paper on a legal pad, then shows the front door of the Missouri Supreme Court before it cuts to a welder working in a machine shop.
"I will hold accountable those who violate state and federal law by knowingly hiring unauthorized workers," Bailey says in the video. "By paying lower wages and avoiding taxes, businesses using unauthorized workers put honest ones at a competitive disadvantage."
Bailey comes back on camera again at the end to urge people to, "Report businesses that employ unauthorized workers" on a government website.
The state-sponsored, campaign-style introduction video closes with a narrator disclosing it was, "Brought to you by the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations."
"It's totally unethical," said Lara Zwarun, an associate professor who studies and teaches advertising regulations at the University of Missouri St. Louis.
"It also begs the question of why the attorney general is featured so prominently in the ad, and makes it so clear about his name and his position and what he's going to be doing," she said. "It kind of detracts from the idea that this is about promoting the rights of authorized workers and makes it seem more like a campaign spot."
A spokesperson at the government agency said the educational video spots could continue to air on Missouri television airwaves through the month of May after the state signed a contract with the non-profit Missouri Broadcasters Association to produce or publish the pieces.
Missouri election law prohibits any "contribution or expenditure of public funds" "to advocate, support, or oppose...the nomination or election of any candidate for public office."
The Department of Labor and Industrial Regulation told us it's spending $100,000 in taxpayer money to produce and publish the video.
"Assisting with this PSA is not a violation of state law as it is not for political purposes," Bailey's government spokeswoman Madeline Sieren said in an email. "The topic is clearly in the public interest."
"I'm not sure that everybody in the public would agree that asking people to tattle on businesses that employ undocumented workers is a public interest," Zwarun said.
Bailey's office claims the Department of Labor and Industrial Regulation asked him to participate in the video and he agreed.
"Because the sole enforcement authority lies with our office, DOLIR asked us to assist them with this PSA to get the word out about the existing complaint form on our website," Bailey's spokeswoman said.
Television stations across Missouri are under no contractual obligation to run the videos, but they have the option to insert them in between programming to fill time for ad space they haven't sold. The free airtime for the incumbent Attorney General is a privilege not currently available to Bailey's political opponents.
"If he really just wanted to get a message out about undocumented workers, why do we need to see his face at all?" Zwarun asked. "Why do we need to know his name at all? It would be about the issue. That's what a public service announcement is supposed to be for: 'Wear your seat belt. Buckle up.' They don't say, 'Hi, this is President Whoever or Senator Whoever, and I want you to buckle up.'
"They just tell you to buckle up because that's what the key message is," she said. "The key message here doesn't seem to be about the undocumented workers. It seems to be about the politician."
According to guidance from the Missouri Broadcasters Association, stations are advised not to run PSAs that prominently feature the face of a public office holder during an election year, but in an off-year, the rules are a bit laxer.
"If the PSA you’re asking about continues into next year, you’ll see that stations will require that someone else be the face," MBA President Chad Mahoney said in an email to 5 On Your Side.
Mahoney said each station makes the final judgment call on which PSAs they run, and confirmed the spots don't generate any revenue for the stations.
The video did not appear in commercial traffic logs at KSDK, according to an internal station review of ad spot records.
While it is very early in the race, the 2024 GOP primary race for Attorney General is well underway. Bailey confirmed he is "absolutely" running for the job in 2024. His campaign committee reported raising more than $305,000 in the first quarter of this year. A political action committee aligned with him hauled in more than $710,000. Combined, the two groups have more than $1,000,000 to spend promoting Bailey's cause.
The videos, which were funded at Missouri taxpayers' expense, could deliver Bailey a significant boost in name recognition without costing his campaign a dime, according to Zwarun's analysis of the video.
"We already have an election system that is so imbalanced in that people that don't have very deep pockets have such a hard time running and having a presence," she said. "This just further perpetuates that inequity, because if you're not in the position, and you don't have the pockets to pay for the space, then your voice isn't going to get out there. You can't get elected if people have never heard of you."
The campaign for Bailey's primary challenger Will Scharf declined to comment for this story. Should any candidate file a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission, the Attorney General's office would have significant enforcement power in that process.
"So little advertising is regulated," Zwarun said. "For one, because we have a First Amendment; but for two, because it's not like we have these war rooms in the government where people are watching all media outlets every hour of the day looking for transgressions. You have to basically have a complaint to even know to look to something. So a lot of free speech and a lot of media speech is unregulated. And it's up to the speakers — the people who are buying the ads or placing the spots — to have ethics and to do the right thing."