CLAY COUNTY, Mo. – A county in conflict: That`s how one elected official describes Clay County.
This Northland county is facing growing public outrage after slashed budgets, salary increases for elected officials and possible misuse of taxpayer money.
Stop wasteful spending. It`s a message, a mantra, that Clay County citizens have made their battle cry. They’re frustrated by what they see as a misuse of taxpayer money, overspending, lack of internal controls and budget cuts to much-needed county departments.
“I was just embarrassed of how our county was being ran. Enough was enough,” said Clay County resident Jason Withington. He started the petition drive along with former Clay County employee Sherry Duffett.
The FOX4 Problem Solvers spent six months pouring through hundreds of pages of county invoices and receipts to see how Clay County spent its money.
“They've created a monster with this stuff. This is amazing and appalling at the same time," Duffett said.
FOX4 discovered the county has hired at least 11 law firms. Those firms have billed Clay County more than $425,000 in the past year and a half. One of those law firms billed the county more than $105,000 just to handle open records requests.
FOX4 also learned the county is paying the legal fees for two county employees charged criminally with tampering with public records.
Assistant County Administrator Laurene Portwood and Risk Management Specialist Lori Rodriguez were both charged. Their case is set for trial in April, but both women still have access to county records. Portwood still has use of the county`s credit card, which has a $50,000 limit. In an update to our original report from Wednesday, Feb. 28th, FOX4 learned the state dropped charges against Rodriguez, but endorsed her as a witness in the case still pending against Portwood.
“I was there for 13 years. I have never seen it like this," Duffett said. "Somebody's paying for that, and it's you and it's you and it's me and everybody else in Clay County.”
So what are taxpayers paying for on the county`s credit card?
FOX 4 collected receipts and invoices showing a $600 Keurig coffee maker; $5,000 to PayPal; nearly $1,000 to Amazon. Back in December 2016, more than $58,000 was spent on a law firm handling the county's open record requests, a function previously handled by Megan Thompson, the county clerk.
“Most of the Sunshine Requests that were handled within my office, I took care of them with the assistance of my staff," Thompson said.
Her staff was cut; her budget slashed by a third.
“I hate to think the people of Clay County are being punished because I refused to give pay increases to politicians,” she said.
In November, Thompson voted “no” to giving an 18 percent salary increase to elected officials.
“No” is typically how presiding Clay County Commissioner Jerry Nolte votes on spending and budget issues, but he`s often out-voted by the other two commissioners, Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen.
Nolte tried to introduce an ordinance that would prohibit the county from paying those legal fees for criminally charged employees, on at least two occasions, he said. But “it was either tabled or removed from the agenda.”
Nolte and Thompson both question why any elected official needs to file open records requests for public records and have those requests sent to outside law firms.
FOX4 asked Thompson if she felt Nolte -- or any elected official -- should have to submit an open records request for documents.
“I do not. I do not believe that`s right," she said. "That`s not open, transparent government.”
Nolte called it “a terrible use of both taxpayer money and, I think, bad practice.”
FOX4 showed Nolte a county purchase order. It should have three different signatures. Instead, County Administrator Dean Brookshire signed it three times.
“Don`t most counties require three signatures? Most businesses?” FOX 4 asked.
“They do, it`s prudent," Nolte said. "It`s a matter of security to make sure that no one person has the ability to spend, in this case, taxpayer money without oversight.”
And now, there are new questions about the recent hiring of two lobbyists at a cost of $84,000.
"$84,000 spent on lobbyists that could've paid for two people in Megan's office," Duffett said. “Once again, I just think this is horrible what they've done.”
What about the county's other spending habits?
“It seems a little excessive, like $600 coffee pots. Gourmet fancy pots, as I think one county administrator explained to me, can brew in multiple languages," Thompson said.
So how can this happen?
“You elect people you think, that take an oath, and they swear that they`re going to demean themselves in the manner that they're supposed to demean or behave, and be true to the taxpayers, and be accountable for their money. And they're not!” Duffett said.
FOX4 shared these concerns with Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway, who invited FOX4 to Jefferson City to discuss the findings.
“It is clear that there are questionable activities," she said.
Galloway is concerned by the number of those outside law firms and that Nolte's open records requests are sent out to an outside firm at the expense of the taxpayer.
“I don`t think a taxpaying citizen would need an audit to know that`s ridiculous and wasteful," Galloway said. "I think from the information that you have provided, information that I am aware of through the citizen petition and others, there are a lot of concerns generally about how Clay County government is operating and how it is serving its citizens.”
Citizens like Withington who said he’ll continue to seek out signatures.
“In Jefferson City, they say, ‘If you think this place is bad, go spend a day at the Clay County courthouse,'" he said.
“I believe that they have a legitimate reason to have those concerns and so we welcome this petition process and the audit," Galloway said.
FOX4 first reported this story on Wednesday, Feb. 28th. On Friday, March 2nd, in a tweet, Galloway reinforced her willingness to conduct an audit of Clay County government spending if enough citizens request it through the petition.
If you'd like to confidentially submit information about suspected waste, fraud or abuse in state or local government, contact the Missouri State Auditor Whistleblower Hotline at 800-347-8597, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or online here.
Find out more about the Clay County audit petition at 816-472-9200 or by emailing at email@example.com.
How do Clay County's spending and business practices compare to other, similarly-run counties in Missouri?
FOX4 contacted Franklin County, which is also a first-class county and has a three-member board of county commissioners. Here are the questions we asked Commissioner Dave Hinson:
FOX4: How many outside law firms has Franklin County hired in past year and half?
FOX4: How much in legal fees has Franklin County spent in last year and half?
Hinson: Less than $20,000
FOX 4: Does Franklin County have an outside law firm handling Missouri Sunshine Law requests?
Hinson: No, our county clerk is the custodian of record.
FOX 4: Does Franklin County's Presiding Commissioner submit open records request for information?
FOX4: Do you think it's a good policy to send the presiding commissioner's open record requests to an outside law firm, which then bills the county?
Hinson: If someone files a Missouri Sunshine Request for public records, you have to give them to them. You don't need to go through the legal process.
FOX4: Has Franklin County paid the legal fees for employees charged with a crime?
Hinson: Not that I'm aware of.
FOX4: Would Franklin County pay for the legal fees of an employee charged with a crime?
FOX4: Does Franklin County have a $600 coffee maker?
Hinson: No, we pay for our own coffee.
FOX4: Does Franklin County have outside lobbyists?
FOX4: Would Franklin County let one person be the only one signing purchase orders?
Hinson: We would never let just one person sign a purchase order, even if that person is the county administrator. We have several eyes look at purchase orders.
FOX4: What is Franklin County's policy on use of the county's credit card?
Hinson: We have one county credit card. The use has to be authorized by the commissioners. We rarely use the credit card, though.
FOX4: What is the limit on Franklin County's credit card?
Hinson: I'm not sure, but am sure it's less than $50,000.
FOX4: Would Franklin County put $58,000 in legal fees on its credit card?
Hinson: No, I don't why you'd put that purchase on a credit card.
FOX4: Would Franklin County put a $5,000 charge to Paypal on its credit card?
FOX4: When Franklin County hires outside law firms, does it go through a bidding process?
Hinson: Under state statutes, you don't have to bid outside law firms. The law is different on that because you are looking at qualifications. If you go out to bid, you have to pick the lowest bid. But under professional services, you want to pick the best. However, you (as a county) should have the same standard for all firms hired. For example, if you have five different law firms, they should all pay the same hourly rate. In our area, that rate is $150 to $200 an hour.
FOX4: Would Franklin County pay an outside attorney to renegotiate the contract for its county administrator?
FOX4: Is it fair to compare Franklin County to Clay County? The population is 110,000 or about half the size of Clay County.
Hinson: Population doesn't matter because we all operate under the statutes.