Missouri auditor supports bills allowing audit of local political subdivisions

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(The Center Square) – Two bills in the Missouri legislature would give the state auditor the authority to audit local governments after receiving information regarding improper activity.

Current state law gives the state auditor the authority to audit state agencies, boards and commissions, the circuit court system, most counties, school districts and charter schools, community improvement districts, transportation development districts, land bank agencies and solid waste management districts. The auditor isn’t authorized to audit counties with a county auditor or political subdivisions, such as fire districts, ambulance districts, sewer districts or municipalities.

“There are certainly more things to audit than there are people to audit them, currently,” Republican Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick said during testimony before the House Government Efficiency and Downsizing Committee on Wednesday. “We have plenty of things to do, so we’re not looking for work that doesn’t need to be done.”

House Bill 2111, sponsored by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, is similar to House Bill 1175 that passed last year in the House but stalled in the Senate at the end of the session. Senate Bill 1048, sponsored by Sen. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, also is substantially similar to last year’s House bill.

Christofanelli said the auditor’s office received approximately 4,000 complaints during the last 11 years during Wednesday’s hearing. He said 45 complaints resulted in a successful petition campaign for an audit.

“My proposal is to allow the auditor the same power when it comes to any political subdivision where there is credible evidence of improper government activity,” Christofanelli said. “That would be defined as waste, fraud, misconduct, misappropriation, mismanagement or violation of state or federal law. Additionally, the auditor would be able to invest, investigate and audit upon the request of the local prosecuting or circuit attorney.”

Both bills would allow testimony and records obtained through the auditor’s authority to subpoena to be protected under confidentiality and disclosure provisions in state law. It would shield audit workpapers and related support material from Sunshine Law requests.

The disclosure portion of the bill drew the most questions from the committee as they weighed transparency against protecting whistleblowers.

“I understand keeping those names private and not being able to release those,” said Rep. Gretchen Bangert, D-St. Louis, who stated she once worked in the St. Louis County auditor department. “But, I do think it’s important if folks want to know why you’re auditing and what those allegations were, those [should] not be exempt from public disclosure.”

Fitzpatrick said his office currently strives to protect the identities of whistleblowers, but it’s often difficult as a small number of people often have access to limited information.

“This would allow us to close the complaint, if needed, to protect the identity of the whistleblower,” Fitzpatrick said. “Currently under our practices, that would be open. We send an investigative letter to the political subdivision to begin the investigation and that would be an open record. We currently treat the documents received in response to that as a closed record because they have the potential to become audit work papers.”

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