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Long-awaited, blistering audit of Clay County government cites waste, secrecy and other abuses

Samuel King
KCUR 89.3
An audit of the previous Clay County Commission found several problems with how former elected leaders handled the public's business.

Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway's audit of the previous Clay County Commission found instances of waste, secrecy and generous benefits to certain employees, among other findings.

The Missouri Auditor’s long-awaited audit of Clay County described how former commissioners wasted public resources and cloaked those activities in layers of secrecy.

Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway presented the audit, a document spanning 162 pages, to the Clay County Commission in Liberty on Wednesday. Galloway laid criticism at the feet of former commissioners Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen, both of whom left office at the end of 2020.

“Our audit revealed that two former commissioners made significant decisions involving taxpayer funds while actively limiting the ability of taxpayers to know why or how these decisions were made,” Galloway said.

Galloway’s assessment rated the former Clay County Commission’s performance as “poor,” the lowest possible designation that the auditor’s office offers its subjects.

“So the results of this audit should make the previous commissioners and their overpaid cronies ashamed,” said Megan Thompson, a current commissioner who took Ridgeway’s seat on the commission.

Ridgeway and Owen decided not to run for re-election in 2020; Jon Carpenter took Owen’s seat on the commission.

Since Thompson and Carpenter joined presiding commissioner Jerry Nolte, who was frequently outvoted by Ridgeway and Owen, the county functions by most accounts are running more smoothly.

“Jon Carpenter and Megan Thompson are doing a great job and I trust their leadership,” said Jason Withington, a Clay County resident who in 2018 led an effort to gather enough petition signatures to require an examination by the Missouri auditor.

Ridgeway and Owen could not be reached for comment.

The annex project

The audit took aim at several decisions that happened between 2017 and 2020. Prominently featured was a proposal for a Clay County annex building.

The Clay County Commission, a three-member body whose decisions were dominated by a consistent voting bloc formed by Ridgeway and Owen, bought land and approved contracts for the annex project with little documentation to support it and hardly any public discussion. And it discovered that Owen was given sole authority to approve more than $12 million in contracts for the annex.

Critics of the annex idea wondered why it was necessary to begin with, and the commission’s secretiveness compounded suspicions about the nature of the project.

All said, Clay County taxpayers spent $2.8 million on the still-unrealized annex project. The Clay County Commission suspended work on the project last year after Ridgeway and Owen, who both decided not to run for re-election, were replaced by current commissioners Megan Thompson and Jon Carpenter, respectively.

Galloway’s audit found a litany of other problems.

Contracting problems

Former commissioners short circuited the typical solicitation process to find private contractors to perform government work.

One example: The former Clay County Commission hired law firms that charge hundreds of dollars an hour to perform basic government sources that full-time staffers used to carry out.

The Husch Blackwell firm was hired to serve as county counselor, with several partners and associates billing hours for work that an in-house attorney on the county’s payroll had previously performed.

The Spencer Fane law firm reviewed the public’s requests to access government documents, something the county clerk had done before.

All told, Clay County taxpayers paid those firms about $3 million while not following county procedures to solicit other firms to do the work.

Special perks

The audit also criticized special arrangements for certain county employees. That included employment contracts for select employees that renewed automatically each year and contained generous severance payments.

The audit also made note of an unusual perk offered to five county employees to live rent-free in county-owned property. The benefit was not reported on tax forms for the employees, which Galloway said put Clay County at risk for penalties from the Internal Revenue Service.

In 2020, KCUR revealed the rent-free arrangements with some county employees, including two who made more than $100,000 working for the county.

The audit also criticized the former Clay County Commission for discouraging public involvement in government. One way was getting rid of public comment sessions at regular commission meetings. Another was not not keeping minutes to certain commission meetings.

‘A new day'

Nolte, the presiding commissioner, served under Ridgeway and Owen. Although he was the top elected county official, he frequently found himself as the lone dissenting voice to Ridgeway’s and Owen’s priorities.

On Wednesday, Nolte called it “a new day” for Clay County, with a new commission in place and the long-awaited audit finally announced to the public.

The audit took more than three years because the former commission frequently went to court to challenge the auditor’s authority. The county lost each time.

Losing in court was a frequent occurrence during the previous county commission. And those losses often represented some type of breakdown in county government.

For example, the Clay County Sheriff’s Office in 2019 sued the county commissioners after Ridgeway and Owen voted for cuts to the department’s budget to pay vendors that provide food and healthcare to jail inmates. Former sheriff Paul Vescovo believed the cuts were political payback for his office’s investigation of a former assistant county administrator who tampered with public documents.

A judge eventually ordered the commission to restore the sheriff’s budget.

Steve Vockrodt is the former investigative editor for the Midwest Newsroom.
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