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Law dictating governor use of state cars needs work, audit says

Thursday, February 21, 2008 | 4:12 p.m. CST; updated 3:06 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A state audit of the governor’s office released Thursday points out continued problems with political and personal use of state vehicles.

The audit from Democratic State Auditor Susan Montee recommends legislation be enacted to explicitly define when state-owned cars can be used by the governor for purposes other than official business.

As it stands now, a 2005 law outlining the governor’s use of Highway Patrol troopers for security potentially contradicts a provision in the Missouri Constitution prohibiting the use of state resources for personal gain, Montee said.

Until lawmakers address the issue, the audit says, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt’s use of such vehicles for reasons other than security for him and his family should be “reimbursed or discontinued.” Montee said she found no evidence of misuse of state vehicles by Blunt, who is not seeking another term.

The issue has been a contentious topic in the Capitol, with Republican critics of Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon raising similar concerns about his use of state cars.

Montee also is reviewing Nixon’s use of his state vehicle at the attorney general’s request. That review is not an official audit.

Nixon, who is running for governor, previously said he used his state car only for official business. He later acknowledged using the vehicle for political trips. His campaign sent the state a $47,022 check as reimbursement for the political mileage on his state car and the time his staff spent at political events. His campaign also said Nixon would begin using a campaign vehicle for political trips.

In a written response to the audit, Blunt’s office noted its opposition to Montee’s recommendation regarding state vehicles “given the clarity of the statute.”

The audit — a routine review of the governor’s office done once every four years — noted several other concerns with record-keeping and resource management, including:

• Use of money allocated to the Office of Administration to pay the salaries of four gubernatorial employees.

• Incomplete records of capital assets at the governor’s mansion, from silverware to antique furniture. The report notes that the items remain in the mansion but are not properly documented. It added that Blunt’s predecessor, Democrat Bob Holden, did not provide the new governor a capital asset inventory.

• Incomplete records of mansion events, including the absence of guest lists to distinguish among state functions, political and private events.

Montee also raised concerns about the absence of clearly defined policies in the employee manual for the governor’s office regarding retention of public records, in particular e-mails.

Blunt’s administration last year acknowledged it routinely destroys some e-mails. Former staff attorney Scott Eckersley has sued the governor over claims that he was fired for warning that destroying the e-mails is illegal. Blunt has said Eckersley was fired for misusing state resources.

Blunt since has ordered that all e-mails in his administration be retained.

Montee said that her auditors did not specifically investigate Eckersley’s charges because a special task force appointed by Nixon is already pursuing its own inquiry.

Speaking to a group of Missouri newspaper editors and publishers at a Capitol lunch Thursday, Blunt downplayed the audit findings.

“I don’t think she had findings of any great significance,” he said.

Blunt also said it would be impractical and time-consuming to separate the costs of state vehicles used by him and his family for purposes other than official business.

“It would be very difficult to break that all apart,” he said.

The Missouri Republican Party slammed the audit in a news release as “nothing more than a taxpayer-financed media release for Jay Nixon’s political campaign” and a “transparent political attempt” to shift attention away from Nixon’s use of state vehicles.

Montee said her scrutiny of the governor’s office was nonpartisan, noting that previous auditors and government watchdogs raised concerns about Gov. Joe Teasdale’s use of state airplanes three decades ago.

“These issues have been out there for a long, long time,” she said.

Montee said now is a good time to address the audit findings.

“Right now, when we have an open seat in the governor’s office, is the time to clarify this,” she said.


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