CLAY COUNTY, Mo. – A county is on edge following a FOX4 investigation. Two elected officials have received concerning letters from the county after the story aired.
Clay County Clerk Megan Thompson is one of two elected officials who publicly shared concerns about spending and accountability in Clay County. She’s received two threatening letters from Clay County counselor Lowell Pearson, the attorney hired to represent Clay County and its elected officials.
Thompson did not release the letters she received from Pearson, but she described them as “baseless" and "hostile." She said she feels "threatened and bullied" by the letters, and that it appears to be a conflict of interest to receive letters written by the attorney paid to represent her.
She didn't release the letters because she said, "I’d hate to give any credibility to what they’re doing and how they’re wasting taxpayer money."
Thompson is a key witness in the pending case against Clay County Assistant Administrator Laurie Portwood, who is charged with tampering with public documents. Thompson is the one who found and reported the alleged tampering, which led to the charges against Portwood.
Thompson also voted against a salary increase for elected county officials. Shortly after that, county commissioners voted 2-1 to slash her budget. That forced Thompson to fire two employees in December, and she's not sure her office has the funding to make it through the end of this year.
"It’s hard to look at what is going on right now and not come to the conclusion that these are some form of retaliation and to silence the witnesses that are part of this case," she said. "These are their bullying tactics. This what is what they’re doing to me and to others, other elected officials.”
Days after voicing concerns about the red flags FOX4's investigation uncovered, Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway also received a threatening letter from Pearson.
"It is clear there are questionable activities," Galloway previously said of Clay County spending.
The eight-page letter she received said Galloway's comments to FOX4 "reflect an inappropriate prejudging of issues based on far less than all the facts," and her comments "violate state law that define the duties of the auditor.”
“Frankly, the comments make clear that you and your office are now incapable of objectively performing an audit or any other activities regarding clay county,” Pearson said in his letter.
As FOX4 reported, a group of Clay County citizens, outraged by what they call the county’s wasteful spending, is trying to collect enough signatures to force an audit by Galloway’s office.
But in his letter, Pearson says Galloway and her office should recuse themselves from such action, not participate in any activities in Clay County, and refer all Clay County matters to an external accounting firm.
“It is unfortunate that such measures are necessary to ensure an independent process that complies with state law," Pearson wrote, “but given the comments on camera, I see no other alternative.”
Pearson gave Galloway 10 days to heed his request.
“If you do not do so, Clay County, on behalf of its taxpayers, reserves all rights to take legal action to enjoin any unlawful actions," he said.
Galloway's office sent its own letter in which she repeated, "there are legitimate concerns” in Clay County and “citizens concerns appear to be numerous and widespread.” Galloway’s general counsel also said Pearson “mischaracterized” and took the auditor’s comments “out of context.”
“While we could speculate as to your motivations for doing so, this office takes any concern related to these matters seriously,” general counsel Paul Harper wrote.
He added that Galloway’s comments in FOX4's story “clearly demonstrate that the auditor remains objective and has neither made any predetermined assessment of the facts nor predetermined any recommendations for a future report.”
The letter concludes, “We stand ready to assist any citizens with their concerns about how public funds are handled.”
So who authorized Pearson to write those letters? Presiding County Commissioner Jerry Nolte said he has not seen the letters sent to the county clerk or the state auditor, nor did he know the county was threatening legal action. Nolte said the letters were not brought before the commission as an action item. He didn't see, read, or sign off on them, and there was no vote.
Nolte said County Administrator Dean Brookshier oversees Pearson, and he would be the one to answer these questions, but Brookshier wasn’t in his office the day we interviewed Nolte.
Nolte later emailed FOX4 and said the county’s spokesperson, Nicole Brown, would answer our questions. FOX4 asked for an on-camera interview but after agreeing, then canceling, Brown sent FOX4 the following responses to questions via email:
FOX4: Who authorized Mr. Pearson to write this letter?
Brown: As county counselor, Mr. Pearson has an obligation to represent the interests of the County and its citizens. It was his decision to write the letter.
Brown: The citizens of Clay County deserve fair and impartial treatment from the State Auditor, and from every other statewide official. In Mr. Pearson’s judgment, the Auditor’s comments on your television station showed that she had pre-judged issues and her impartiality was compromised.
FOX4: How much did it cost taxpayers for Mr. Pearson to research and write this letter?
Brown: Mr. Pearson served as chief counsel to Governor Matt Blunt and therefore has extensive knowledge of the statutory duties and responsibilities of the State Auditor. Clay County received the benefit of that knowledge at no charge for research. The cost to protect the interests of the citizens of the County was less than $1,000. While the County got excellent value because of Mr. Pearson’s knowledge, it is still unfortunate that the Auditor’s statement made it necessary to expend any resources.
FOX4: We are also aware that Mr. Pearson has sent two letters to Megan Thompson regarding concerns with postings about a meeting. Again, as the Clay County Public Information Officer, can you tell us who authorized Mr. Pearson to send those letters to Megan Thompson?
Brown: As county counselor, Mr. Pearson has an obligation to represent the interests of the County and its citizens. It was his decision to write the letters. He did so because of his opinion that posting notices of political events is against the law.
FOX4: How much did it cost taxpayers for Mr. Pearson to research and write those letters?
Brown: Less than $1,200. It is unfortunate that the Clerk’s actions in posting notices and then failing to remove them made this work necessary.
FOX4: Doesn't Mr. Pearson, as county counselor, represent Megan Thompson and "all departments, officers, institutions, and agencies thereof, " as defined under MO Rev. Stat 56.640? Given that, is it appropriate for him to send Ms. Thompson those letters?
Brown: Statement from Chief County Counsel Lowell Pearson: “I have an ethical obligation to inform any county official when I observe unlawful activity. I had no choice but to inform the clerk of my opinion.”
Brown also said Pearson had legal concerns about a public meeting posted by Thompson's office on a bulletin board in the county courthouse on behalf of a citizens group. Thompson is adamant the posting followed state law and said she'll continue to do to her job, even in the face of intimidation.
Thompson has filed a complaint against Pearson with the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. That office investigates allegations of misconduct by lawyers.
FOX4 reached out to Lowell Pearson for comment on this story. In a statement, he said he had an "ethical obligation" to inform Thompson of his legal opinion about the posting.
The tampering with public documents case in still pending and expected to go to trial later this year. The state dismissed charges against one county employee. She is now a witness for the state.
Citizens continue to collect signatures to trigger an audit by Galloway's office. The governor could also step in and order Galloway’s office to audit Clay County.