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Do statewide elected officials have blank check when it comes to expenses?

In Region

5:45 pm on Tue, 04.12.11

Updated at 5:06 pm on Wed, 04.13.11

On Feb. 25, 2010, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder spent a night at a hotel in St. Louis County after attending a local event. He reported on his reimbursement form filed later with the Missouri Office of Administration -- the state entity that actually pays the bills -- that the lodging was necessary because he was flying to Kansas City the next morning for a ribbon-cutting.

pawlenty300lincdays22610jm
File photos by Jo Mannies
Tim Pawlenty at Lincoln Days in February 2010.

What Kinder didn't mention on the form was that he was flying back to St. Louis in time to introduce former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- now a likely 2012 candidate for president -- at the statewide Republican Lincoln Days, held Feb. 26-28 in St. Charles. Kinder spent a subsequent night in St. Charles, but on his campaign's dime.

Kinder's staff say that his Feb. 25 hotel stay and one-day roundtrip flight between St. Louis and Kansas City -- taken on a private plane out of Spirit of St. Louis airport -- were clearly in line with his duties and broke no laws. Critics question whether the St. Louis hotel stay -- and particularly the plane flight-- were more related to Pawlenty.

But the broader fact is that neither the lodging nor the travel appears to receive close scrutiny by anybody in his office or at the state Office of Administration before the reimbursement check was cut.

And in Missouri government, that's the norm -- and potentially the real story behind the controversies over Kinder's frequent hotel stays in St. Louis and Gov. Jay Nixon's frequent flights on state planes around the state.

As long as the spending is within their office budgets and doesn't obviously violate any state law, statewide elected officials in Missouri have wide latitude over how their office money is spent.

Unless questions are raised by a rival, the public or the press, statewide officials face little oversight on their internal spending of taxpayer dollars.

Kinder's new chief of staff Bill Kenney said Wednesday that the lieutenant governor's travel expenses are reviewed to make sure that the travel complies with state law and that official events are involved. He said the review previously had been made by former chief of staff Rich AuBuchon and that Kenney would do so as well.

kinder300icecreamlincdays22610jm
Peter Kinder serves ice cream at Lincoln Days on Feb. 26, 2010, after he returned from Kansas City.
Missouri House leaders have put in place stricter oversight regarding legislators' office spending.  Any item over $100 requires approval of the chamber's accounts chairman.
 
State Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, serves on several House spending committees, including Appropriations and Budget.
 
Kelly says that Missouri's statewide officeholders must have the flexibility to run their offices as they see fit. Broad latitude in spending their budgets is part of that, he said, as long as their spending is "for a governmental purpose."
 
The ultimate oversight is up to the voters, said Kelly. They will determine on Election Day whether they are satisified with a statewide official's stewardship.

State auditor's role

The state auditor does audit the other statewide offices every three or four years, but those audits usually examine general office practices and probe only a fraction of the actual expenses, except for big ticket items. The audits also usually don't determine whether an expense was justified, unless it's an obvious violation of state law.

"Historically, the state auditor has audited statewide elected officials at least once during their term, but the state treasurer is audited every year," said a statement from the state auditor's office. "Statewide elected officials have full flexibility in their budgets, but the auditor's office does review their spending. We will continue to work with the legislature to identify ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of state government."

schweich150tom
Provided
Tom Schweich

New auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican, is about to begin a scheduled audit of Nixon's office, which is likely to touch off more debate on office spending.

In the case of Kinder, for example, his latest audit last fall did include an observation from then-Auditor Susan Montee that she was concerned no one in his office was reviewing his official expenses before reimbursement forms were sent to the Office of Administration.

In fact, in Missouri, an argument could be made that a statewide official's campaign spending comes under stricter scrutiny. Reports must be filed quarterly with the Missouri Ethics Commission, which in theory has the clout -- if not the manpower -- to review a report to make sure that campaign contributions and expenditures are proper and in line with state law.

The commission, made up of gubernatorial appointees, occasionally flags an item and forces a candidate or politician to give money back or reimburse their campaign accounts. More frequently, the commission acts after a rival, political party or a member of the public has filed a formal complaint questioning a donation or expenditure. A particularly eggregious violation may be referred to local prosecutors.

That's why some political eyebrows went up when Kinder -- while continuing to maintain that his office spending was proper -- announced last week that he was reimbursing the state for $35,000 in St. Louis hotel bills that he had amassed so far during his six years in office. And he planned to use campaign money to make the payment.

Kinder had been stung by a Post-Dispatch story about his frequent hotel stays in St. Louis -- at least 329 nights in six years --  and their ties to political events. Kinder has maintained that the stays also involved official appearances or meetings, but he declared that he would reimburse the state anyway "to move this issue of the table."

But Kinder's use of campaign money potentially could lead to more scrutiny of the hotel bills since state law bars any use of campaign money for personal expenses.

Kinder and his staff say his planned use of campaign money was no different than the repayment made by Nixon in 2007, while he was attorney general.

nixon150demdays3610jm
File photo by Jo Mannies
Gov. Jay Nixon at Democrat Days in 2010.

Nixon ignited controversy in 2007 when he was using his official car to transport him to political and professional events. He ended up reimbursing the state more than $55,000 in vehicle costs for at least three years. Nixon maintained that his use of the state car was proper because he was Missouri attorney 24/7. But like Kinder, Nixon chose to reimburse the state to end the dispute. Nixon also used his campaign money for the reimbursement.

office of administration

That controversy also put the spotlight on the Office of Administration and raised questions about the agency's objectivity in office-expense issues. The Office of Administration is, effect, an arm of the governor; the governor's appointees run the office.

Nixon's suspicion about OA's objectivity prompted him and the agency to seek an opinion from state auditor Montee as to the proper use of his car and how much might be owed. Nixon's campaign initally had paid $47,000, and Montee determined that it need to pay an additional $8,600 more.
Montee, a Democrat, also found herself the target of Republican accusations of partisanship after her February 2008 audit of then-Gov. Blunt in 2008 raised questions about some of his office spending.

In the case of that 2007 dispute, Nixon was already an announced rival to then-Gov. Matt Blunt. As a result, OA officials at the time -- with close ties to Blunt -- were often attacking Nixon over various office expenditures or financial practices.

That gubernatorial relationship arose again last week when Kinder initally asserted that OA had lost his official calendars prior to 2009, which would have been when Blunt controlled the agency.

Kinder's chief of staff Kenney said Wednesday that the electronic calendars have been found in the state archives, but that the computer system failed to store the calendars in a usable form.  Computer experts at OA are trying to fix the problem so that the old calendars are usable for reference purposes and to satisfy Sunshine Law requests, Kenney said.

Kenney also confirmed that Kinder had yet to send a check to repay the state for the $35,000 in St. Louis area hotel bills, despite the lieutenant governor's pledge to do so last week. "It will be cut," Kenney said. "The campaign office is reviewing the legalities on it."

Kenney said he didn't know when the check will finally be sent.

In any case, no one in state government has the power to force Kinder to follow through.

Contact Beacon political reporter Jo Mannies.

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