Government & Politics

Galloway subpoenas Clay County records as officials fight citizen-initiated audit

The Clay County courthouse is pictured in a Google Maps Street View image from May 2018.
The Clay County courthouse is pictured in a Google Maps Street View image from May 2018. Google Maps

Little more than two weeks after a judge affirmed Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway’s authority to audit Clay County government, the county’s attorneys continue to stonewall the effort, Galloway’s office said.

Clay County was served with a subpoena from Galloway’s office on Friday, demanding a series of records in connection with a long-running, citizen-initiated audit of the county’s inner workings.

Some of the records sought are routine, such as minutes to closed Clay County Commission meetings, purchasing card transactions and payroll data.

Others involve requests for records associated with county employees with access to “take home cars” owned by the county, records on a computer assigned to a departed county administrator, assessment information for Ford Motor Company that has an assembly plant in Claycomo and written cash handling procedures for the county’s parks department, among others.

The subpoenas also request records from law firms hired by the county, which include law firms that do work in corporate and public law, employment law and criminal and civil defense.

Subpoenas are rarely issued by the Missouri auditor, but the office has the power if subjects of its audits do not turn over records willingly.

“Clay County officials have failed to fulfill the request, and their attorneys have said that responses will be delayed indefinitely,” said a statement from Galloway’s office. “Given the past conduct of the county in evading the audit, the subpoena was issued to get answers on behalf of Clay County citizens.”

Clay County on Friday afternoon responded that it needed more time to gather the documents that Galloway requested, particularly as county staff are working to wrap up the budget for next year.

“The County did not receive the Auditor’s request until Oct. 31,” the county said in a statement. “That said, the auditor could have sought these records long ago but unfortunately seems to have waited until it would serve her personal, political interests.”

Clay County also accused Galloway, who is running for governor, of slow-walking the audit for the last nine months.

“There is simply no reason why Galloway sat on her hands for the last nine months when she could have been getting these records in an orderly fashion, and thereby expediting the completion of the audit,” the county said. “The citizens of Clay County should be asking Galloway hard questions instead of accepting her misleading narrative.”

A long-running audit

Galloway’s office launched an audit about 11 months ago after more than 9,000 Clay County residents signed a petition requesting her involvement in the county’s affairs. The petition was started by residents who suspect that county officials are wasting taxpayer resources, shielding government records and not serving the public’s interest.

The audit’s been slow-going. The county sued Galloway’s office in January, claiming auditors were overstepping their authority in the records they pursued.

On Oct. 23, Cole County Judge Jon Beetem rejected the county’s position, ruling that the Missouri auditor has authority to conduct what’s effectively a performance audit.

It’s the most recent defeat suffered by Clay County in the courts this year. Clay County Sheriff Paul Vescovo sued the Clay County Commission after it passed a budget that cut funding to the sheriff meant to provide health care and food for jail inmates. Vescovo said the budget cuts, which were approved by commissioners Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen but not supported by commissioner Jerry Nolte, were political payback.

Vescovo had initially investigated county assistant administrator Laurie Portwood on allegations that she directed another county employee to tamper with public records. The investigation was handed off to the Missuori Highway Patrol and Portwood, the county’s top budget employee, later entered into a non-prosecution agreement over the matter.

Portwood has received pay raises since the alleged incident.

A judge ruled in August that the commission had “intentionally manipulated” the sheriff’s budget and ordered the county commission to allocate $1 million to the sheriff’s budget. The county is appealing that ruling and Vescovo said on Monday that the jail’s food and health care vendors continue to provide services without payment from the county.

Earlier this year, The Star sued the Clay County Commission for charging thousands of dollars to access legal billing records from the Spencer Fane law firm, which Clay County hired to review requests from the public to view government records. The lawsuit, which is still pending, also alleged that Clay County conducted an illegal meeting when it hired Spencer Fane.

The Star subsequently obtained the records from a source concerned about Clay County’s penchant for secrecy, which showed that the records were routine and would not require much of a lawyer’s time to review.

A change in government?

This week, the Clay County Commission discussed a proposal by Ridgeway to assemble a committee to explore ideas for pursuing a constitutional charter form of government, one that would likely expand the number of elected commissioners and reduce the number of elected officials overseeing departments like the recorder of deeds.

No agreement was reached on the matter after a testy exchange between Ridgeway and Nolte. During the discussion, Ridgeway acknowledged that the county had developed a reputation for petty in-fighting among elected officials.

Jason Withington, a citizen activist in Clay County who helped pursue the effort for an audit, upbraided Ridgeway in an email after learning that Galloway’s office had to subpoena the county for records.

“How the world are we suppose to take you seriously about having an honest conversation regarding ‘professional’ government when our current government, instituted by *YOU*, acts like this?,” Withington wrote.

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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.