KANSAS CITY — State Auditor Susan Montee waded into the fray over one of Missouri's hotly contested congressional races on Tuesday and accused Republican Rep. Sam Graves of failing to pay state taxes on two airplanes he bought in 2006.
Montee, a Democrat, called a news conference to assert that Graves had failed to disclose ownership of the two planes. She said he filed a false personal property declaration.
But Graves campaign spokesman Ryan Steusloff said Graves has complied with state law because the county assessor "determined that junk parts are not taxable."
Atchison County Assessor Lori Jones, also a Democrat, said Tuesday that she told Graves the two planes in question are not taxable because they are not operable and used only for spare parts.
Montee, who said she was speaking as a resident of the 6th District, not as state auditor, said Jones did not have the authority to make that determination, since both planes are listed with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Missouri State Tax Commission as airplanes.
"It's not the way it works," Montee said. "The assessor does not have the power to give a waiver. If he owns them, and we know he does because he listed them with the FAA, they need to be declared as personal property."
FAA records show that Graves, a Republican from Tarkio, owns eight airplanes. Four of them — vintage 1946 Stinsons — were bought this year.
"They own a fleet of airplanes," Montee said of the Graves family. "The eight airplanes called attention to someone who declares himself a down-home guy."
Montee said she researched Graves' personal property taxes and investigated the status of his aircraft with the help of Democratic Party officials. She acknowledged that she is a supporter of Graves' Democratic opponent in the general election, former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes.
Graves and Barnes are competing to represent Missouri's 6th District in Congress, which Graves has done since 2001.
Jones, who has been Atchison County assessor for 19 years, said she determined that the two airplanes are not taxable because they are "junked" and simply being used as spare parts for the other working planes that Graves flies.
"They were considered salvage because they were being used for parts," Jones said. "They were not operable in present condition."
Jones said she made the determination after speaking with Graves' wife, Leslie, and did not personally examine the planes. She said Montee never called her office to talk about the issue before Tuesday's news conference.
"The ironic thing is I'm a Democrat," Jones said. She is not taking sides in the congressional race.
Montee said it doesn't matter with which party Jones is affiliated because Atchison County is small and Graves has a lot of influence there.
"I don't know what the situation is with this assessor and the Graves family," Montee said. "I do know that it is a very small county, I've been there many times, and I know that Sam Graves is a powerful person and has in the past thrown his weight around."
Not so in this case, Jones said.
"The big confusion here is we're in rural America," Jones said. "That's where they can't understand what it's like to live in rural America. In the big city where Montee lives, you don't know your next-door neighbor. I have no loyalty to the Graves family, period. I'm strictly doing my job.
"I didn't give him a waiver. They're not taxable, and I wouldn't have required him to report them."