JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Things in Greene County have been a source of controversy and rumors following allegations of misusing public money to aid the passage of a 1/2-cent sales tax measure, and it’s caught the eye of the state’s top watchdog office.
Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway has twice now called for an independent audit into allegations that public funds had been used to advocate for sales tax after a whistleblower alerted her office more than four months ago.
The whistleblower allegations her office received say that county employees were asked to perform duties related to the “Invest in Greene County Political Action Committee,” stating that performing duties advocating for the ballot measure was a condition for employment.
Other allegations deal with claims that county officials or employees accepted donations for the PAC while on the job and during work hours, and that funds and equipment may have been used.
The measure itself was a 1/2-cent general revenue sales tax, passed by the voters on Nov. 7, 2017, with roughly 60 percent of the voters casting votes in favor. In addition to bringing in more revenue, it also triggered provisions to expand the Greene County jail.
That particular measure is the point of tension between a state senate candidate and the county’s law enforcement chief, with County commissioner Lincoln Hough opposing the measure, even offering a lower, last-minute alternative to the tax.
And as a candidate seeking to represent the area in the state senate, Hough has found himself in some strange situations within the past year, to which he attributes the cause being his vote against the proposal.
In July, Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott asked the Missouri State Highway Patrol to investigate Hough for an alleged failure to pay personal property taxes on his cattle.
Hough called it “a joke,” saying it was intimidation tactics on the part of the sheriff, and maintained that he had paid all necessary property taxes.
On Dec. 18, 2017, a letter from the Highway Patrol stated that a preliminary investigation into the allegations had been completed and that the request would not be approved as they found no apparent violations of Missouri statute.
In September, the sheriff pulled over Hough, saying he thought he was driving a little fast. Hough said that the sheriff’s words about having “a year to charge” him felt like an implicit threat. Arnott told the Springfield News-Leader that he often lets people off with warnings, with the implication being that if he catches them doing it again, he will write them up for both offenses.
The two men have been at odds over several issues, including how big a jail expansion should be, as well as the 1/2-cent sales tax.
The latest disagreement between the two is over the issue of whether Galloway and her office should be allowed to investigate.
The County Commission said that the issue would be resolved by a Missouri Ethics Commission investigation, but as of mid-March, the MEC is unable to take action due to the lack of a quorum.
“As I have said since these allegations in Greene County came to light over three months ago, the best way to ensure taxpayers get the answers they deserve is through an independent audit that will account for how public dollars were used,” Galloway said in a statement in late March. “But because of the actions of two Greene County commissioners after they hired a private law firm out of Kansas City, my office has been unable to proceed. With the inability of the Missouri Ethics Commission to act, citizens are left waiting for answers and accountability.”
As for an audit by Galloway’s office, they must receive an ordinance or resolution passed by the county commission requesting such an audit. But instead of requesting an audit, two commissioners supported hiring a private law firm, which would be paid for with taxpayer funds.
“The fact of the matter is the clock has run out, and the Missouri Ethics Commission is unable to act, leaving Greene County taxpayers without answers. An audit by my office is the only sure path forward,” Auditor Galloway said.
Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.