Personal bills paid with public funds… bank documents and official minutes falsified… more than $60,000 in taxpayer money missing. The plot of a TV crime drama? No, it’s what I uncovered in an audit of Coffey, a town of fewer than 200 people in northwest Missouri.
The findings of the audit were shocking, both in what took place and in how little oversight there was of city funds. It also showed the power of an audit to dig deep to reveal waste, fraud and mismanagement.
Money went missing for a period of almost two years while the city clerk was solely responsible for the financial accounting functions of the city. Meanwhile, the mayor and the board of aldermen – which included the clerk's husband – used few, if any, safeguards to prevent and detect fraud. The city official responsible for paying all the bills quite literally had blank checks with the mayor’s signature already on them.
I’ve turned over the information from the Coffey audit to appropriate law enforcement officials to consider criminal charges. It’s far from the first time that’s happened after an audit. When we find evidence of corruption, our audits help put public officials out of office - and sometimes behind bars. In fact, audits from my office have resulted in more than 30 criminal charges of corruption against public officials.
A recent example was in Viburnum, in Iron County, where the former city clerk pleaded guilty in June to receiving stolen property. This happened after an audit uncovered more than $100,000 in fraudulent activity. As in Coffey, my audit found a lack of oversight by the mayor and the board of aldermen allowed for the fraud to continue undetected.
Over the past three years, state audits have identified more than $300 million in government waste, fraud and mismanagement. That included inappropriate bonus payments made to top administrators in the University of Missouri system, millions of dollars in questionable costs in social safety net programs, and $90 million in a billing scheme at a small public hospital in north Missouri. Much of the improper activity involved taxpayer money that should have been used productively to better the lives of Missourians.
Accountability and transparency in Missouri have been helped by a law passed in 2013 that empowers the State Auditor to investigate credible claims of improper activity by state and local government officials. In the five years it’s been in effect, the law has been a valuable tool to help protect taxpayers through investigations that identify waste, fraud and mismanagement. My office has used this law to aggressively investigate whistleblower complaints, whether they concern the smallest city hall in Missouri or the state Capitol.
A specialized unit of auditors, attorneys and investigators in the State Auditor’s Office reviews claims that come into the Whistleblower Hotline. Our work in protecting the tax dollars of Missourians relies in large part on the valuable information we obtain from citizens who are concerned that money is being used improperly. Individuals who would like to provide information can contact my Whistleblower Hotline at 800-347-8597, by email at email@example.com, or online at auditor.mo.gov/hotline. Whistleblowers may remain anonymous, and you can be assured that I take my legal obligation to protect your identity seriously.
Even audits that don’t uncover waste or fraud result in recommendations to help local governments be more efficient and effective, a goal that most local officials are committed to achieving. It was encouraging to see representatives of more than 30 counties across Missouri participate in the County Government Day I hosted this summer, where my office provided valuable information on how to effectively and efficiently meet the needs of citizens.
I’m proud of the work we continue to accomplish. We’re hearing from citizens every day through our Whistleblower Hotline, which demonstrates to me that Missourians really do care about having the best government possible – one that is open, responsive and accountable.