Government & Politics

Judge dismisses Clay County’s lawsuit seeking to stop citizen-requested audit

A Cole County judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Clay County Commission seeking to limit the records requested by State Auditor Nicole Galloway.

Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem ruled Wednesday that Galloway’s requests were not unconstitutional, as alleged by the commission. A hearing on dismissal of the lawsuit was conducted in March.

Galloway’s audit, which began in December, was initiated after a local citizen’s group submitted a petition with more than 9,000 signatures requesting that she examine the county’s financial records.

Residents had raised concerns about questionable spending, allegations of corruption, waste of taxpayer dollars and lack of compliance with the state’s Sunshine Law.

Galloway said county officials have resisted her with “delays, roadblocks and evasive responses.” So she issued a subpoena requesting that Assistant County Administrator Nicole Brown appear at the auditor’s Kansas City office to turn over all minutes from all county commission meetings from the last two years, as well as records kept on smartphones, computers and other devices.

The Clay County Commission immediately answered back with the lawsuit, contending that Galloway is overstepping her constitutional authority. In an earlier hearing asking to stay the audit, an attorney for the county argued that Galloway demanded access to records beyond her purview, such as minutes from closed meetings and documents containing attorney-client privileged material.

“This Court further finds that there is nothing per se unconstitutional about a records request,” Beetem wrote in his Oct. 23 order. “If there is content in such records that should not be disclosed, such an issue is properly raised in a proceeding to enforce an administrative subpoena.”

Galloway, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2020, called the dismissal “a major victory for Clay County taxpayers.”

“This lawsuit represented an unprecedented level of obstruction,” Galloway said in a statement. “With its dismissal, the Clay County Commission should fully cooperate with the audit that citizens demanded. My office is committed to getting the answers Clay County residents deserve and will move forward with audit work.”

As the judge dismissed the lawsuit “with prejudice,” the county cannot refile its claims. However, the commissioner could choose to appeal the ruling.

A request for comment to Commissioners Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen was not immediately returned.

Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte has long been supportive of the audit and would not favor an appeal of the judge’s action if it were put to a vote.

“I think we should stop all legal obstacles and cooperate with this citizen-mandated audit,” Nolte said.

Nolte noted that the county was ordered to pay for auditor’s litigation costs and that the legal battle has already cost the county “well into six-figures.”

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Crystal Thomas covers Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star. An Illinois native and a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has experience covering state and local government.