Government & Politics

Judge says Clay County ‘intentionally manipulated’ sheriff budget, orders $1M payment

A judge has ordered the Clay County Commission to provide its sheriff nearly $1 million to fund jail contracts and operations through the end of the year after finding that the sheriff was deliberately underfunded during the budget process.

Judge Daren Adkins on Thursday largely sided with Clay County Sheriff Paul Vescovo, whose department ran out of money to pay contractors after top county officials slashed the sheriff’s budget the last two years. Those contractors were providing food and health care services to about 300 inmates at the county jail.

Vescovo sued the Clay County Commission in April, alleging that his budget was shortchanged on purpose by a majority of Clay County Commissioners after he handled an initial investigation into tampering with public records by a high-ranking county employee.

Thursday’s decision by Adkins is the latest black eye for Clay County government, which has been beset by citizen complaints, political backbiting and allegations of corruption.

Vescovo’s operating budget had decreased from $2.58 million in 2017 to $1.79 million in 2019. In 2019, the sheriff’s budget was broken out into five separate line items for field operations, civil process and court security, detention, administration and emergency management.

During a one-day trial last week, Vescovo’s lawyers argued that county budget officer Laurie Portwood submitted a budget knowing it didn’t provide enough money to pay for contracts to provide inmates food and health care, and that Clay County Commissioners Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen voted to approve the budget anyway. Clay County Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte voted against the budget.

Vescovo argued that he could not shift money around in his budget to fund the contracts without commission approval, and that Portwood would not accept a request his office made earlier this year to move money to fully fund the jail.

“The County Commission, either by and through its Budget Officer or on its own, cannot on one hand purposefully underfund a specific line item for services that are mandatory ... and on the other hand intentionally restrict the authority of the the Sheriff by a county ordinance to move monies within his overall budget, and then suggest that the Sheriff use other funds at his discretion,” Adkins wrote.

Adkins wrote that Portwood could not give a reason why she submitted a budget that underfunded the sheriff’s jail and that Clay County “intentionally manipulated” the budget process.

Adkins himself questioned Portwood at length during last week’s trial, during which she had difficulty answering his questions about her budget decisions. Ridgeway and Owen did not testify.

“This Court specifically finds that Chief Budget Officer Portwood’s testimony was at best not credible,” Adkins wrote.

A spokeswoman for Clay County was not immediately available for comment.

Portwood was accused in 2017 of ordering a subordinate to tamper with public records, specifically cutting Nolte’s signature off official documents.

Vescovo initially investigated the allegation before handing the case off to the Missouri Highway Patrol. Portwood entered into a deferred prosecution agreement in which she would avoid charges if she refrained from tampering with public records and performed 40 hours of community service.

While Portwood’s salary has increased since then — she made $107,000 in 2018 and is due to make $140,000 this year — Vescovo’s budget has dropped the last two years.

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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.