State auditor visits with locals to discuss issues related to public money

When a local elected official is suspected of mishandling or embezzling public funds, what can the state auditor do?

Right now, not much, according to Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway. Galloway says tightening ethics laws and giving more resources to local prosecutors to pursue public employees suspected of mishandling money would help protect public funds.

Galloway met with community leaders in Northeast Missouri Tuesday to discuss issues related to public accountability. Her visit included a discussion with Marion County Prosecuting Attorney David Clayton.

This year, Galloway advocated for the passage of Senate Bill 128 — which included language that would give prosecutors the ability to request an audit from Galloway’s office if suspicion of inappropriate management of public funds arises.

Currently, the auditor’s office does not have the discretionary authority to initialize an audit on every public entity in the state. For example, it can not initialize an audit of the city of Hannibal at random. A citizens’ petition is needed for that process to begin. The auditor’s office does, however, have discretionary authority to initialize an audit of some public entities, including state departments and many counties (Marion County was lasted audited in 2016).

A professional audit can help uncover things like fraud and embezzlement. Those forensic audits are often difficult for local law enforcement agencies to handle, because it is such a specific type of investigation, Galloway said.

The legislation — which became part of a larger, more complicated bill — passed the Missouri House and Senate. Gov. Eric Greitens vetoed the bill earlier this month. In his veto letter, Greitens did not specifically disagree or disapprove of the part of the bill that would grant authority to the auditor’s office in the event a local prosecutor requests an audit.

Instead, Greitens vetoed the bill because it contained too many elements that did not relate to a single subject. He described the legislation as a whole as “inconsistent” and having “constitutional issues.”

Galloway said she will work to resurrect the bill in the next legislative session, which starts in January. She said her office developed the basis for the bill in response to comments she’s received from around the state. Sen. Bob Dixon (R-Springfield) sponsored the bill.

Although the bill didn’t cross the finish line this year, Galloway said supporters will push for its passage next year.

“It was the strongest ethics bill passed (by the Legislature),” she said. “We were disappointed it wasn’t signed, but we’ll be back next year.”

The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys supported the legislation.

“If the legislature in Jefferson City takes up and passes this legislation, Missouri law will soon have stronger penalties for government officials who abuse their power,” wrote Amy Fite, the organization’s president, in an op-ed distributed to Missouri media outlets in April.

The auditor’s office does not have the authority to bring criminal charges against a person suspected of defrauding the public or embezzling public money. Instead, Galloway said, the legislation is needed to boost local law enforcement’s ability to pursue charges against people “who abuse their position for their own benefit.” Including the resources of the auditor’s office would add to the tool belt of local law enforcement.

“We need to partner with law enforcement to the best of our ability,” Galloway said.

The bill enjoyed bipartisan support before the governor’s veto on July 14.

Galloway is running for re-election in the 2018 election. She was appointed to the position in 2015 by then-Gov. Jay Nixon.

Galloway highlighted information on the auditor’s whisteblower hotline, a resource for individuals to anonymously share information on suspected waste, fraud or other inappropriate government activity, including misuse of public finances or resources.

Concerns may be submitted anonymously at auditor.mo.gov/hotline

Reach editor Eric Dundon at eric.dundon@courierpost.com .