Sheriff says his budget was cut after he investigated Clay County staff, so he sued

More chaos unfolded in Clay County government on Friday when its sheriff, Paul Vescovo, sued the county’s three elected commissioners, alleging that his operating budget was cut by well more than half in retaliation for a criminal referral made two years ago.

Vescovo’s lawsuit claims that Clay County’s budget is illegal because it underfunds the county’s law enforcement operation by $1.7 million, hindering its ability to carry out ordinary functions.

The sheriff’s lawsuit warns that the budget cut could result in running out of funds to run the Clay County jail.

Vescovo’s lawsuit is the latest drama to emerge in Clay County, where thousands of residents sought an audit of the county amid suspicions of corruption and waste by county government. Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway has attempted to carry out the audit, but has had to go to court to obtain financial and meeting records that Clay County and its lawyers have fought against disclosing.

Vescovo last year requested $2.8 million to fund operations related to the jail and its administration, as well as the process of serving people with lawsuits and subpoenas. Clay County Commissioners Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen voted in January for a budget that provided a little more than $1 million for those functions.

The previous year Vescovo requested a $3 million operating budget but only got $2 million.

Department and office leaders in Clay County government each year make requests for their budgets for the upcoming year, and it’s the commission’s job to evaluate those requests and approve a final figure for each.

Presiding Clay County Commissioner Jerry Nolte voted against the budget because of the cuts to the sheriff’s budget and other departments within the county government. Nolte is often at the losing end of 2-1 votes on the three-member commission.

Nolte, in a statement, said he was displeased with the decisions made by his commission colleagues that resulted in Vescovo’s lawsuit.

“Like many citizens, I am frustrated by the enormous drain on county taxpayers’ money over such a large volume of litigation on issues like the state audit and others,” Nolte said. “I believe many of the actions taken by the County Commission are not in the best interest of the people we serve.”

Vescovo’s lawsuit speculates that Ridgeway and Owen targeted his department’s budget for cuts in retaliation for a 2017 investigation into alleged tampering with public records by county staffers. The lawsuit says Ridgeway has “repeatedly confronted the Sheriff and publically [sic] announced her intent to inflict harm on the Sheriff by threatening to and cutting his budget.”

Ridgeway said she would challenge Vescovo’s contention at some other time. She added that she had not seen a copy of the petition.

“I don’t know about the lawsuit, haven’t seen it and the Sheriff has not talked to me prior to whatever actions he took today,” Ridgeway said in an email. “When I know more, I’ll be happy to talk to you (granted, within the bounds of what I can say concerning pending litigation). But at this point, I’m in the dark about the issue.”

Owen did not respond to a request for comment.

Vescovo’s lawsuit asks that a judge order the county to set aside enough funds to operate the sheriff’s office, pay it back for funds cut the previous year and reimburse it for attorney’s fees in connection with having to sue to get those funds.

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Steve Vockrodt is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported in Kansas City since 2005. Areas of reporting interest include business, politics, justice issues and breaking news investigations. Vockrodt grew up in Denver and studied journalism at the University of Kansas.