JEFFERSON CITY — The director of the Missouri Division of Tourism resigned Friday amid an investigation into allegations of excessive taxpayer-funded travel and improper acceptance of gifts from a state vendor.
The Division of Tourism sent out a press release Friday evening stating Ward Franz had departed. Before becoming director of tourism, Franz had been a top aide to Gov. Mike Parson before Parson became governor.
An investigator in state Auditor Nicole Galloway’s office wrote to the Department of Economic Development, which oversees the tourism division, on Oct. 25. The letter outlined allegations from a whistleblower complaint that the auditor’s office had received.
The letter, addressed to department Director Rob Dixon, said the auditor had begun a preliminary investigation to determine whether the complaint was credible. A spokeswoman in the auditor’s office said the investigation was continuing.
Department of Economic Development spokeswoman Maggie Kost also said the agency launched an internal investigation and found some of the accusations unfounded.
However, she said, there were concerns uncovered about behavior not meeting the standards set forth by Parson in a 2018 executive order on ethical behavior.
“As a result, Director Franz resigned effective Friday, Nov. 1,” Kost said.
The Post-Dispatch obtained the letter Monday through an open records request. Attempts to reach Franz were unsuccessful.
Mary Johnson, the auditor’s chief of investigations, said an unnamed whistleblower told the auditor that Franz and a guest arrived at a conference in Anaheim, California, on May 30 when the conference began on June 3.
On June 3, Franz left the conference to attend an event in Missouri, according to accusations contained in the letter.
The complaint, according to the letter, also said Franz attended a Friday, March 15, conference in Maryland Heights and “continued to stay in St. Louis for the remainder of the weekend at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, at Division of Tourism’s expense.”
The whistleblower also said Franz accepted two baseball tickets “valued at over $1,000” in June.
“In both cases, the tickets were alleged to have been requested by the director to be purchased for him by an active vendor of the Division of Tourism,” the letter says. “One game was allegedly attended by Director Franz and a guest at Yankee Stadium, the other game was allegedly attended by Director Franz and a guest at Fenway Park.”
Johnson, in the letter, asked for Franz’s unedited work calendar, copies of airfare and hotel invoices, copies of state credit card invoices and other information. She asked that the documents be delivered by Nov. 8.
Rep. Jeff Justus, R-Branson, who sits on the Missouri Tourism Commission, said the panel had met to discuss the whistleblower complaint.
But, he said, “I don’t have any comment.”
Franz served as chief of staff to then-Lt. Gov. Mike Parson before Parson became governor.
Galloway is running against Parson in next year’s race for governor.
“I take pride in hiring not only well-qualified individuals, but also the hardest workers,” Parson said upon hiring Franz in 2017.
From 2012 to 2017, Franz was the executive director of the Ozarks Medical Center Foundation in West Plains, Missouri.
He served as a member of the Missouri House of Representatives from 2004 to 2012, representing District 151, which includes the West Plains area.
After Parson became governor, Franz was named to the approximately $73,000-a-year tourism post.
State records show the state paid $3,328 in travel expenses for Franz in the current fiscal year, compared to $2,590 last year.