‘It’s a nightmare’: Texts reveal last-ditch efforts to save Parson’s health director

By: and - February 21, 2022 9:00 am

Donald Kauerauf, the director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, speaks during a press conference at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City on July 21, 2021 (Photo courtesy of Missouri Governor’s Office).

The questions from state senators hadn’t even begun, and Donald Kauerauf’s staff were already in a panic.

Chants from protesters opposing his nomination as state health director echoed through the hearing room, and as she sat with Kauerauf waiting for his turn to testify, Lisa Cox, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, sent a text message to her counterpart in Gov. Mike Parson’s office.

“In the hearing room,” Cox wrote. “It’s a nightmare.”

Kauerauf had been Parson’s health director for barely five months, but in that time he’d managed to become a villain in the eyes of hardline conservative senators who held his fate in their hands.

He showed up to his confirmation hearing on Jan. 31 a dead-man walking, with protesters gathered in the Capitol hallways calling for his head and members of the Senate conservative caucus out for blood. 

Text messages and emails obtained by The Independent through open records requests detail the desperate efforts of Parson administration officials to salvage Kauerauf’s nomination in the final days before it went down in flames. 

Close aides to the governor, as well as Kauerauf’s DHSS staff, tried to navigate the treacherous waters of a badly divided Missouri Senate. But in the end, a combination of factors — anger in the GOP base over COVID mitigation efforts, misinformation about Kauerauf’s positions, a delayed confirmation process due to a redistricting filibuster and a massive snowstorm on the eve of a constitutional deadline — rendered their efforts fruitless. 

‘You’re fighting stupidity’

Kauerauf was supposed to get a confirmation hearing on Jan. 26.

But after hours of waiting, as the conservative caucus held the Senate floor to decry a proposed Congressional map, the hearing was canceled and rescheduled for the following Monday. 

The delay gave Kauerauf the chance to continue making the rounds with state senators. But it appears, at least according to text messages that night, things weren’t going well. 

Kauerauf texted Alex Tuttle, the governor’s legislative budget director, saying he was frustrated with the process.

Tuttle tried to lighten the mood, texting a joke about how “if we vented our frustrations to a random bartender” his “head would explode.”

But Kauerauf wasn’t having it. 

“I’m serious Alex,” he wrote. “I need cover from senators that don’t have the stones to be honest with me. Getting real frustrated. Only one appointment was going to cause issues and feeling isolated.”

Tuttle suggested the two speak the following day.

“This is not your fault or anything you’ve done,” Tuttle wrote. “You’re fighting stupidity.”

Later that night, Adam Crumbliss, Kauerauf’s top lieutenant in DHSS, texted several Parson administration officials, including Robert Knodell, the governor’s former deputy chief of staff and former acting DHSS director who now serves as director of the Department of Social Services. 

“We need to all circle up tomorrow morning,” Crumbliss wrote. “We have a few different paths toward tamping difficulties, but Don’s looking for some additional support on getting us where we need to close gaps and ranks.”

The group of officials — including Crubmliss; Knodell; Tuttle; Kyle Aubuchon, Parson’s board and commission chair; and Michael Oldweiler, DHSS’ director of legislative affairs  — agreed to meet about the situation. 

The next morning, Crumbliss and Aubuchon exchanged text messages in the group chat about which Republican senators they needed to focus on, with Crumbliss ranking them: 

  1. Bob Onder 
  2. Mike Moon
  3. Paul Wieland
  4. Bill White
  5. Bill Eigel

“We should be good on Bean,” Crumbliss wrote, referencing Sen. Jason Bean, R-Holcomb, who serves on the gubernatorial appointments committee. 

Aubuchon texted that he just met with Wieland, R-Imperial, and that the senator wanted proof “that Don is pro-life… news article or something …thinks in Illinois Don said he’d be pro-choice to get a job there, then move to Missouri and say he’s pro-life to get a job here.”

Aubuchon said he’d been told by Sen. Kara Eslinger, R-De Soto, that she would vote for Kauerauf if he gave a straightforward answer in opposition to vaccine and mask mandates. 

“She doesn’t want a long rambling answer on this,” Aubuchon wrote. 

He also informed the group of his meeting with Moon.

“Just followed up with Moon,” Aubachon wrote. “Said Don just visited with him and it went really well. Hopes Don does well at the committee hearing on Monday, and says it’s ‘very likely’ he’ll be voting yes for Don.”

Aubuchon’s impression of Moon’s position, however, doesn’t correspond with emails obtained from the senator’s office through an open records request. 

The day before the senator spoke with Aubuchon, Moon’s legislative assistant sent emails to more than a dozen people who had reached out to his office to express opposition to Kauerauf’s nomination.

“Thank you for contacting the office of Senator Moon,” he wrote in each response. “Also, thank you for allowing your voice to be heard by expressing your concerns to us about Donald Kauerauf. After some research and discussion, the senator has decided to oppose Mr. Kauerauf’s appointment.”

In fact, the same day Aubuchon expressed hope that Moon might support Kauerauf, Moon’s legislative assistant emailed the six other members of the Senate conservative caucus with a pair of documents that would prove fatal to the nomination.

“The first document is a timeline of everything he has said that may be of concern since he was appointed as Director of Health and Senior Services,” the email said. “The second document is a letter we received which explains SHIELD, a test to stay coercion tactic used by the state of Illinois to mandate a health passport. This document thanks Judy Kauerauf (the wife of Donald Kauerauf) at the beginning letter for implementing this system in Illinois. Donald Kauerauf wants to do the same in Missouri.”

The following day, Moon emailed a constituent who had voiced opposition to Kauerauf: “I agree with you and will use my influence on the gubernatorial appointments committee to oppose his confirmation.”

‘The clock is the enemy here’

A view of the Missouri Senate chamber from the visitors gallery (photo courtesy of the Missouri Senate).

Tuttle wasn’t having any better luck with another member of the conservative caucus. 

He texted the group of administration officials the he had spoken with Onder, who expressed concerns about Kauerauf’s public comments on a bill passed by lawmakers curbing the authority of local health departments, as well as “vax mandate rhetoric, stance on abortion, etc.”

But Tuttle did have some good news to report. He texted that he met with Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, and “his entire caucus is behind Don.” 

The Friday before Kauerauf was scheduled to face the gubernatorial appointments committee, Aubuchon shared information with the group chat about an anti-Kauerauf rally that had been scheduled for Monday in the Missouri Capitol, the day of the confirmation hearing.

The rally’s announcement, which Aubachon shared via text, incorrectly implied Kauerauf supported “forced vaccination.”

When Kauerauf’s confirmation hearing two days earlier was rescheduled, it gave his critics time to organize, and they were flooding senate offices with calls and emails. Now, they were planning to gather in the Capitol in the hopes of sinking the nomination once and for all. 

Crumbliss responded to the news by pushing for someone to reach out to Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz and Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden. 

“The clock is the enemy here,” Crumbliss wrote, a reference to the fact that the state constitution required Kauerauf’s nomination be confirmed by the following Friday or he would be banned from serving in the position for life. 

Crumbliss also floated the idea of trying to get an opinion piece written by Kauerauf published in a pro-Parson newspaper over the weekend. Knodell offered to help facilitate if need be.

Kaurerauf, however, later questioned whether that would be a good idea. 

“Could be a huge mistake with the work that has been done by all,” he texted to Tuttle. 

That day, Crumbliss also texted Parson’s chief of staff, Aaron Willard: “Don is going to call you at some point this afternoon.”

‘Is this serious?’

State Sen. Mike Moon, a Republican from Ash Grove, was among GOP lawmakers who helped sink the nomination of Donald Kauerauf as state health director (photo by Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications).

On Monday, protesters rallied in the Capitol rotunda, with members of the Senate conservative caucus addressing the group about their issues with Kauerauf’s nomination. Then they moved to the third floor, just outside the hearing room where Kauerauf was set to testify before the gubernatorial appointments committee.

In the midst of the protests, Knodell texted screenshots of tweets by Onder incorrectly referring to Kauerauf as “Ron” and saying the gubernatorial appointments committee was not planning on giving Kauerauf’s nomination a vote that day. 

“Is this serious?” Knodell texted the group. 

“Yes,” Crumbliss replied. 

Less than a half hour into the hearing, and before Kauerauf had even been called to testify, Cox, the DHSS spokeswoman, sent her text sounding the alarm to the governor’s office.

She was quickly informed that a statement in Kauerauf’s defense would be released shortly. 

“It’s concerning to see certain Missouri officials grandstanding for purely political reasons and fueling fears without any regard for the truth,” Parson’s statement read. 

But the governor’s condemnation had little, if any, impact. 

Senators grilled Kauerauf for nearly two hours on his views on how best to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, his past comments about vaccination, his wife’s job in Illinois and his position on abortion. 

The next day, with senators eager to adjourn to avoid a looming snow storm, GOP leaders announced Kauerauf’s nomination would not get a vote

It was over. 

Kauerauf resigned, and Parson appointed DHSS General Counsel Richard Moore to replace him on an interim basis.

“Throughout this process, more care was given to political gain than the harm caused to a man and his family,” Parson said in announcing Kauerauf’s resignation. “Don is a devoted public servant who did not deserve this, and Missourians deserve better.”

For those who opposed Kauerauf’s nomination, it was time to rejoice. 

“We won!” Moon wrote in an email to a constituent who’d reached out urging him to block Kauerauf’s nomination. “It was a team effort. I’m grateful to have been entrusted to play a part. What a great victory!”

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Jason Hancock
Jason Hancock

Jason Hancock has spent two decades covering politics and policy for news organizations across the Midwest, with most of that time focused on the Missouri statehouse as a reporter for The Kansas City Star. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he helped launch The Missouri Independent in October 2020.

Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.