JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri Attorney General and presumptive Democratic nominee for governor in 2016, Chris Koster, responded to an audit released today by the State Auditor’s office that was critical of the AGO’s conflict of interest policies.
It all began a few months ago, when a New York Times article featuring several Attorneys General nationwide in what the publication suggested were embroiled in conflicts of interest. Koster — the presumptive front runner in the gubernatorial race – was documented to have received political donations from at least two companies, which were currently under investigation by his office.
Koster has categorically denied any conflicts of interest and even released a lengthy response to the NYT piece. But he adopted new standards for his political operation, calling them the “most stringent” conflict of interest policy of any active state Attorney General in the United States. The new policies apply to Koster’s political operation, Missourians for Koster, but not to his AG’s office, which has a much more lengthy process for changing rules and policies.
The audit chided the AG’s office for not adopting better policies alongside his campaign committee.
“The Attorney General’s office (AGO) lacks adequate policies and procedures to identify and address certain conflicts of interest,” a summary portion reads. “In November 2014, the Attorney General announced he will no longer take contributions from people or companies under investigation by his office, either currently or in the previous 90 days, or from lobbyists or attorneys representing those individuals or companies; and will not accept gifts from registered lobbyists. As of February 2015, the AGO has yet to adopt this directive in a formal policy.”
The audit notes several small ticket practices that could be improved, such as better comparison pricing when seeking travel accommodations for AG employees, more frequent password changes, and more oversight on the hiring of outside counsel.
Koster has responded, naturally, both in his capacity as AG, and as a candidate for governor. The AG’s office, in their official response, defends some pay raises that the audit deemed unreasonable.
“The audit’s critique suggesting that it ‘does not appear reasonable’ to have given 18 AGO employees a pay increase, even for exceptional work performance, reflects an unfortunate approach to state-employee compensation that the AGO has worked hard over the past 6 years to overcome,” a portion reads. “Throughout this process, the AGO has remained fiscally responsible. Not only has the office stayed within budget every year, in fiscal year 2014 the office returned over $100,000 to General Revenue in unspent funds. Missouri law grants the AGO the authority to establish compensation levels for its own employees. The AGO believes it is in the best interest of our state to continue exercising that authority in a fiscally responsible fashion in an effort to bring the best lawyers and staff in the state to the service of our fellow Missourians. This program was adopted in 1994, under then-Attorney General Jay Nixon. In the 21 years since, the Auditor’s office has audited the AGO 6 times. This is the first time; however, that an audit found fault with the program.”
AFSCME Council 72 Executive Director Jeff Mazur took to Koster’s defense on the issue of state employee pay, a frequent topic of discussion in the state. Missouri’s average state employee salary ranks at the bottom in the nation, and lawmakers frequently bemoan the issue, but haven’t yet secured the funds for a significant raise across the board.
“Missouri state employees are ranked 50th among all states in pay,” Mazur said. “Dead last. Attorney General Koster has done what he can to give his rank and file employees modest pay increases and he should be thanked for that, not criticized.”
Koster’s campaign responded as well.
“The audit’s summation inaccurately represents the implementation of the conflict of interest policy,” Andrew Whalen, a spokesperson for Missourians for Koster, said in a statement. “The Missourians for Koster Committee has implemented the most stringent conflict of interest policy of any Attorney General in the nation. This policy was adopted by the Committee November 19, 2014 and restricts contributions from individuals and entities or those representing individuals and entities with litigation before the Attorney General’s office or litigation resolved in the previous 90 days. The Committee continues administering this policy.”
John Watson, interim State Auditor, recused himself from the audit, to avoid any appearances of a conflict of interest himself. Deputy State Auditor, Harry Otto, oversaw the audit.
Collin Reischman was the Managing Editor for The Missouri Times, and a graduate of Webster University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.