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Missouri GOP chairman Hancock goes on offense in denying anti-Semitic campaign against Schweich

John Hancock at 2015 Lincoln Days
Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio

Embattled Missouri Republican Party chairman John Hancock has launched a major public offensive to refute allegations that he had conducted an anti-Semitic “whispering campaign” against state Auditor Tom Schweich. Critics assert that "whispering campaign" contributed to the auditor’s suicide on Feb. 26.

Hancock also has released copies of a Nov. 14 email exchange he had on the issue with retired Sen. John C. Danforth, in which Danforth indicated at the time that he believed Hancock’s denial.

“I trust you and am counting on you to make us proud,” Danforth wrote.

At Schweich’s funeral March 3, Danforth delivered a homily in which he asserted that an anti-Semitic smear campaign had led to Schweich’s death. A spokeswoman said Thursday that Danforth is declining any additional comment.

Meanwhile, several legislators critical of Hancock held a news conference Thursday morning in Jefferson City to call for Hancock to step down as party chairman. Hancock had been elected to the post five days before Schweich’s suicide.

Hancock first appeared Thursday morning on Charlie Brennan’s show on KMOX radio, where Hancock until recently has periodically appeared as a guest host. He later planned to sit down for interviews with various news outlets. It was the party chairman's first major public appearance since Schweich's death.

In a two-page statement first read on KMOX, Hancock repeated the basics – albeit with more detail – of the denials he has been delivering for weeks, ever since Schweich’s assertions first began circulating a few days before he shot himself.

Schweich said that Hancock had falsely told GOP activists and donors that he was Jewish in an attempt to hurt his campaign for governor and help his chief GOP rival for governor, former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway.

Schweich’s grandfather was Jewish and his father is Jewish, but Schweich – like Danforth -- was an Episcopalian.

Hancock, a political consultant, has denied Schweich’s accusations. “It is clear there was no ‘whisper campaign,’ ’’ Hancock said, noting that no evidence has surfaced other than repeated assertions by some in Schweich’s inner circle.

Hancock’s allies have alleged that Schweich may have been mentally ill.

Hancock, a former legislator,  cited his own political career, which goes back decades, and said there has never been any previous accusations or evidence that he was anti-Semitic. “I find bigotry to be one of the most detestable character traits that could be assigned to any human being,” he said.

“Because of these past interactions directly with Sen. Danforth, my sense of hurt and confusion over his homily last week is profound,” Hancock said.

Hancock recalled Danforth’s own experience with explosive allegations in 1991, when the senator defended his former aide – Clarence Thomas – from accusations of sexual harassment during the confirmation hearings that resulted in Thomas joining the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In the end, I agree with Jack Danforth,’’ Hancock said. “Anti-Semitism and bigotry have no place in the Republican Party. They have no place on this planet. And I am grateful for the many who have defended me against gales charges just as vigorously as Sen. Danforth once defended a friend who was nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court.”

As for himself, Hancock hopes to stay on as party chairman. "I just want to get back to work,'' he said on KMOX. "I had known from the beginning that none of this was true."

Credit Ray Howze/St. Louis Public Radio
Legislative critics call for Hancock to step down

After his radio appearance, the state Republican Party issued supportive statements from 22 people, including former U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, state House Majority Leader Ron Richard and St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann.

Not on the list was U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who told reporters Thursday that he was staying out of the controversy over Hancock and leaving the decision to the state GOP committee.

But in Jefferson City, the group of dissident legislators -- most of them Schweich's allies -- said that the battle has paralyzed the party and that Hancock needs to be replaced. "Right now, the party is not working,'' said state Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg.

He and the others at the news conference called for the state GOP to do more in line with Danforth's call, in his homily, to end divisive campaigns.  Pearce said that Schweich committed suicide "because of all this negative garbage."

The group also contended that Hanaway needed to "answer some tough questions'' about her campaign's actions.

Schweich’s allegations go back months

Since last fall, Schweich privately had told allies, including Danforth, that he believed Hancock had been erroneously telling GOP activists and donors that Schweich was Jewish.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Tom Schweich with his campaign coordinator Brad Haberstroh at 2015 Lincoln Days
Credit Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio
Tom Schweich with campaign coordinator Brad Haberstroh at state GOP Lincoln Days, just days before the auditor killed himself.

Schweich’s suspicions appeared linked to his longstanding distrust of Hancock, a Republican consultant, because Hancock’s firm has worked in the past for Hanaway. Hancock’s firm also worked for John Brunner, a 2012 candidate for the U.S. Senate, at a time when Schweich was considering his own bid for the office.

Hancock has acknowledged that he once had thought Schweich was Jewish, but he has denied engaging in any sort of “whispering campaign’’ to spread it.

“I informed Sen. Danforth (in November) that I mistakenly had believed Tom was Jewish, but could not remember a single instance of relaying that to anyone in particular, and I strongly denied having done so with any malicious intent, as such a thing is not consistent with my character,” Hancock said in his statement.

Hancock also denied that he has ever met with any donor on behalf of Hanaway.

At Danforth’s suggestion, Hancock said he had discussed the matter with Schweich in November and thought the two “had cleared the air.’’

Hancock added that he and Danforth had communicated more in January, in an amiable exchange of emails that Hancock said implied that the senator still believed his account.

However, Hancock acknowledged that he continued to have run-ins for months with Schweich’s staff. He contended that Schweich's chief of staff Trish Vincent – among others – “spread rumors that I was anti-Semitic, had made anti-Semitic comments, that affidavits had been prepared and that ‘when the truth came out,’ my career would be destroyed.”

Hancock noted that, so far, no affidavits have emerged in which people have backed up the Schweich camp’s claims. Schweich's allies have referred to a businessman in Kansas City, Kevin Childress, who has said that he had talked to Hancock's brother-in-law, who had mentioned that he heard Schweich was Jewish. Childress and Hancock have never met, Hancock says.

Schweich's chief of staff Vincent appeared Wednesday on radio station KTRS to assert that Hancock had admitted to her months ago that he had been spreading the incorrect information about Schweich’s religion. Hancock has denied her account.

Schweich upset after Hancock’s election

Schweich did not go public with his accusations until several days after Hancock was elected party chairman Feb. 21 by the state GOP’s 68-member executive committee.  Fifty of the members backed Hancock, with the rest split among two rivals.

At that same meeting, the committee voted to oust Vincent as vice chairman.  The panel then engaged in a straw poll regarding the governor’s race, in which Hanaway won.

By all accounts, Schweich – an intense man – was upset by the panel’s actions.

Three days later, Schweich had planned to hold a news conference in Jefferson City airing his accusations against Hancock and calling for him to step down. But Danforth, among others, persuaded the auditor to cancel his plans.

John C. Danforth
Credit Washington University
John Danforth

(Danforth said in his homily that he advised Schweich instead to leak the information to reporters.)

Two days later, on the morning of Feb. 26, Vincent called Danforth’s office to report that she was concerned about Schweich’s “emotional state.” According to an account released by Danforth, Vincent asked his chief assistant – Martha Fitz – to call Schweich’s wife.

Fitz said in a statement, released last week, that it took her two hours to reach Kathy Schweich.

“At about 9:40 a.m. Kathy returned my call,” Fitz stated. “We spoke briefly. Kathy told me that Tom was up and about and had been making phone calls. Tom then picked up the phone and talked to me for about three minutes.”

“He spoke solely about his outrage concerning the rumors that were being spread about his religion and how he should respond to those rumors,” Fitz recalled. “I told him I thought it was best to let others stand up for him. He then threatened to kill himself and handed the phone back to Kathy. Seconds later I heard Kathy say, ‘He shot himself!’ Kathy then called 911 on another line while I stayed on the first line with her until the paramedics arrived.”

Schweich was taken to Barnes-Jewish hospital, where he later was pronounced dead.

Before talking to Fitz, Schweich had telephoned at least two reporters to ask them to come to his home that afternoon to discuss religion.

Hancock has acknowledged that the controversy has hurt him personally and professionally.  But he said he is grateful for the friends in both political parties who have stood by him and declared their confidence in his innocence.

Hancock said there are several lessons made clear by the controversy. Among them, “deal in facts, not speculation, and certainly not unsubstantiated rumors.  In the end, the truth almost always comes out eventually.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.