JEFFERSON CITY — The scene was the Folly Theater in Kansas City.
The event was a fundraiser this summer for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Robin Carnahan in which President Barack Obama was the keynote speaker.
While waiting for the featured guest to arrive, Missouri Auditor Susan Montee was behind the microphone warming up the crowd of about 750 partisans. And she made this pledge:
"I am going to spend the next few months the way I have spent the past three and a half years, traveling all over the state and putting out audits. You're going to see me everywhere — OK, I might have frontloaded a few of them into the election cycle — but it's the same audits that I have been doing all along."
Did Montee really line up audits for release in the final few weeks before the election?
No, Montee responded when asked Friday if the public should expect a burst of audits before the Nov. 2 election in which she faces Republican Tom Schweich.
"I really don't have the control over when we get the field work finished and how long something takes," Montee said.
So why did she suggest she did during the Obama fundraiser?
"Why not?" she responded. "I was just saying I'm trying" to work hard in the job.
"If I could actually control it in the way that could make political sense, I'd look at it," Montee said. "But I can't actually do that."
The potential exists for all incumbents to use a public office for their personal political benefit during an election year. Incumbents often can get free media attention — as opposed to having to buy an advertisement — by holding news conferences, issuing press releases or producing reports and audits.
This past week, Montee used an electronic campaign newsletter to tip her political followers to the impending release of an audit asserting that a municipality had violated Missouri's speed-trap law.
"On Wednesday, I will tell thousands of Missouri drivers who have gotten speed trap tickets what municipality is in violation of this law," Montee wrote in a campaign news letter sent Monday. In that same letter, she also gave her political supporters a heads up that an audit of the Kansas City School District would be released Thursday.
The general public received no advance notice about the speed trap audit from Montee's official office.
"Anytime somebody wants to know what's coming out in the next week, they can call and I would tell them" said Montee spokeswoman Allison Bruns.
Schweich contends the speed trap audit wasn't the first time Montee's political supporters got first word of the upcoming release of an audit.
"It's problematic to be giving your inside supporters information that the general public doesn't have," Schweich said. "It suggests that politics are above policy."
Montee denied that and said her office would consider ways of providing public notice about the upcoming release of audits.
Montee's predecessor Claire McCaskill, who now is a Democratic U.S. senator, suspended the issuance of audits for the final month before her 2002 re-election to avoid any appearance that the audits were politically timed.
She did the same when she was running for governor in 2004 — suspending audits for the final month before the August primary and again for the final month before the November general election.
Montee said she has no plans to halt the release of audits as the Nov. 2 election nears — though she doesn't plan to issue audits that could affect someone else's campaign, such as an audit about a county assessor who is up for re-election this November. If she were to halt audits for a month, it would create a backlog, she said.
"I can't in my head see how I justify changing how the office is running on a dally basis because I happen to be running for office," Montee said.
Schweich declined to say whether he would impose a pre-election moratorium on the release audits, if he were the auditor.
But he pledged: "I would never use the timing of a release of an audit for political purposes."