Elections

Missouri auditor candidate faces questions about her role in attorney general office

Saundra McDowell won a four-way primary for the Republican nomination for state auditor.
Saundra McDowell won a four-way primary for the Republican nomination for state auditor. Campaign photo

As she makes her case to Missouri voters on why she should be the state’s auditor, Republican Saundra McDowell regularly points to her two years working in the state attorney general’s office.

In a video kicking off her candidacy, McDowell said that while working for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster she, “managed teams of accountants and investigators successfully going after those who cheated Missourians.”

During a television interview last month, she said: “I’ve prosecuted fraud with the attorney general’s office. I did Medicaid fraud, so I led auditors and investigators looking into Medicaid providers who over-billed the system.”

She reiterated that in a radio interview a few days later — “I was prosecuting Medicaid fraud at the attorney general’s office” — and again in an interview with the Jefferson City News Tribune.

But now those claims are being called into question.

McDowell never worked in the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, the division of the attorney general’s office that prosecutes Medicaid fraud.

Instead, she worked for the attorney general’s financial services division and handled administrative appeals involving Medicaid providers who had been sanctioned by the Missouri Department of Social Services.

Those appeals are not adjudicated in court, but rather by the administrative hearing commission.

Additionally, auditors and investigators involved in those appeals didn’t work for McDowell’s division or the attorney general’s office. They worked for Medicaid Audit and Compliance, a division within the department of social services. Any investigation they conducted would have been completed before McDowell was involved, and if they found credible allegations of fraud by a Medicaid provider then that information was turned over directly to the attorney general’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.

Joanna Trachtenberg, an attorney in Columbia, served as chief counsel and director of the attorney general’s Medicaid Provider Fraud Unit during the time when McDowell worked for the attorney general’s office.

“My division, in conjunction with county prosecuting attorneys and the United States Attorneys’ Offices, was responsible for civil and criminal prosecution of Medicaid fraud in state and federal court,” she said. “Saundra McDowell never worked in my division and did not handle any of these prosecutions.”

Asked by The Star to clarify her past statements about leading a team of auditors and investigators in the prosecution of Medicaid fraud, McDowell appeared to backtrack slightly.

“I worked closely with the auditors and investigators at Missouri Medicaid Audit and Compliance, as they were my clients during my time at the attorney general’s office,” McDowell said in an email. “My job was to oversee the work that they did during litigation.”

McDowell said she “prosecuted fraud on behalf of (Missouri Medicaid Audit and Compliance) by litigating those cases on the civil side by terminating Medicaid provider status to those defrauding Missourians. We also made sure that those guilty of fraud returned the money back to the Medicaid system.”

McDowell is hoping to unseat incumbent Democratic Auditor Nicole Galloway next month.

Galloway’s spokesman, Eric Slusher, said McDowell is deliberately misrepresenting her experience.

“Her repeated claims that she led teams of Medicaid investigators and prosecuted Medicaid fraud are simply not true,” Slusher said.

A first-time candidate for public office, McDowell has faced a barrage of criticism since pulling off a surprise victory in the four-way GOP primary this summer.

Her eligibility to serve as auditor has been called into question because of a requirement in the Missouri Constitution that the auditor be a resident of the state for 10 years at the time of the election.

Originally from Oklahoma, McDowell didn’t move to Missouri until 2010. She married her husband, a Missouri native, in 2009, and both listed Virginia Beach, Va., as their residence on their marriage license. She had a Mission, Kan., address in 2013.

McDowell’s financial history, which includes court orders regarding unpaid debt, has also been a point of criticism.

In 2015, for example, a judge ordered McDowell to pay more than $30,000 to a Springfield landlord after she and her husband stopped paying rent. More recently, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed that McDowell’s husband is listed as owing $1,484 in personal property taxes, fines and fees from when the couple lived in Kansas City in 2012.

In response to questions about her eligibility, McDowell has insisted that she and her husband established “intent” for Missouri residency before the 10-year cutoff on Nov. 6, 2008. She has placed the blame for her financial woes on “President Obama’s stagnating economy.”

She defended her experience in the attorney general’s office, calling it “one of the reasons I’m qualified to serve as Missouri’s next auditor.”

Slusher said McDowell is being “dishonest with Missouri taxpayers.”

“McDowell has no credibility to argue that she is qualified to lead the state’s fiscal watchdog agency” he said, “after changing stories about her significant financial problems, refusing to answer questions about her Kansas residency and now misleading voters about her professional experience.”

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