JEFFERSON CITY — The wife of Gov. Mike Parson’s chief of staff has been named executive director of the Hawthorn Foundation, a nonprofit that receives taxpayer funding to promote the state and underwrites overseas business trips for Missouri governors.
Becky Willard, wife of Parson chief of staff Aaron Willard, will lead the Hawthorn Foundation, the chairman of the organization told the Post-Dispatch on Monday.
Willard’s hiring has raised eyebrows within some GOP circles and adds a wrinkle to ongoing budget negotiations over how and whether taxpayers should fund the nonprofit into the future.
John Sebree, chairman of the Hawthorn Foundation, said “not at all” when asked if the governor’s office had any involvement in the hiring process. A spokeswoman for the governor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Sebree said the foundation’s executive committee selected Willard in a unanimous vote on Thursday and announced the selection the next day to the foundation’s entire board, made up of business leaders from across the state.
Sebree said there were “many interested candidates” but that a hiring panel eventually narrowed the list to two finalists, who interviewed with the full executive committee March 8 and 9 in Columbia, he said.
He said the foundation needed a “fundraiser” to help it fulfill its mission, and that Willard had worked as a fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt for five years.
Willard is scheduled to start work on April 12, Sebree said.
As Parson’s chief of staff, Aaron Willard made more than $142,000 last year, according to state payroll records. Though Becky Willard’s salary wasn’t immediately known, her predecessor in 2019 made more than $160,000 in total compensation, records show.
Becky Willard had worked as a director for Axiom Strategies, a national GOP political consulting firm founded by Missourian Jeff Roe.
The line in the state budget authorizing taxpayer support for the Hawthorn Foundation has been a point of contention in the past among lawmakers who control the state’s purse strings.
The Hawthorn Foundation contracts with another nonprofit, the Missouri Partnership, to promote international commerce in the state.
In 2019 tax records, the most recent year for which the Hawthorn Foundation’s financial filings were available, the nonprofit reported receiving $2.4 million in “government grants” and said it generated more than $2 million in other revenue.
The Hawthorn Foundation reported spending $76,000 on travel or entertainment expenses for public officials in 2019.
The then-executive director of the nonprofit, Steve Oslica, made nearly $141,000 in base compensation and another $24,000 in additional compensation that year, according to the records.
That same year, the Hawthorn Foundation transferred nearly $2.9 million to the Missouri Partnership, which listed that amount as making up the vast majority of its overall revenue in its 2019 filing.
The Missouri Partnership reported it spent more than $1.5 million on compensation, $160,000 on advertising and promotion, $124,000 on travel, and $113,000 classified as “meals and entertainment.”
A 2018 report by State Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, was critical of the Department of Economic Development for not providing detailed information on the nonprofit’s performance.
Parson’s budget for the fiscal year that begins in July recommends $3 million in overall funding for the international business efforts.
Before the pandemic, Missouri governors often embarked on overseas business trips funded by the Hawthorn Foundation.
Democrat Jay Nixon in 2016 defended his international travel, saying the state benefited economically because of it.