A state audit of Clay County government has begun, months after citizens turned in a petition calling on Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway to look into the county’s financial records and other concerns brought forward by whistleblowers.
Galloway’s office said in a news release Tuesday that the audit was initiated after the petition was submitted and verified to have more than the minimum of 5,590 signatures needed from county residents who are registered voters.
The petition residents turned in to the auditor’s office last June had more than 9,000 signatures.
The citizen petition came amid allegations of questionable spending, budget cuts used as retaliation, and official resistance to public scrutiny. In June, the auditor’s office said it had received more than a dozen whistleblower contacts related to Clay County.
A group of residents started collecting signatures for a petition after some noticed the county failed to pay its electric bill and was close to getting its power shut off last May.
In 2017, the state attorney general’s office charged a county employee with record tampering after the county clerk noticed someone cut the signatures of a commissioner off of some documents.
The employee, Laurie Portwood, later reached an agreement with the attorney general to defer prosecution for two years if she agreed to not tamper with other government documents in the future and completed 40 hours of community service.
Following that incident, the county commission voted 2-1 to remove the county clerk, Megan Thompson, as the county’s custodian of records. County records obtained by The Star in June showed the county paid more than $57,000 to the law firm Spencer Fane to process all of its public record requests since Thompson was stripped of that role.
Clay County was last audited by the state in 1990 after a formal request from the commission, according to the auditor’s office.
Two county commissioners spoke against the idea of a state audit earlier this year, including Luann Ridgeway, who said she thought the audit would be too costly.
The audit launched this week is estimated to cost the county $100,000 to $150,000 based on the costs of other audits done for counties of similar size. Galloway’s office has said previously it could take up to a year to complete.
“The citizens who signed this petition have asked my office to conduct an independent review of the operations and practices of Clay County, the fifth-most populous county in Missouri,” Galloway said in a statement.
“An audit can serve as a tool to help county officials most effectively and efficiently use the taxpayer dollars entrusted to them and make improvements to better serve their constituents.”
Galloway asked any Clay County residents with helpful information to send email to email@example.com or call 800-347-8597. Concerns can also be submitted anonymously online at auditor.mo.gov/hotline.