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How can we get our tax dollars back? What can we do?

Those are some of the first questions citizens ask us when we expose corruption by public officials and hold politicians accountable to taxpayers. Unfortunately, state law isn’t strong enough to protect Missourians and deter public officials from taking advantage of citizens. Right now, there is too much red tape that prevents law enforcement and the state auditor from easily working together to expose fraud and abuse.

That’s why the Missouri state auditor’s office, Sen. Bob Dixon, Rep. Joe Don McGaugh, prosecutors and law enforcement officials came together to push for new legislation to crack down on official misconduct. We need stiffer penalties, better ways to require the return of taxpayer money, and fewer barriers to cooperation between the auditor’s office and local law enforcement.

If the Legislature in Jefferson City takes up and passes this legislation, Missouri law will soon have stronger penalties for government officials who abuse their power.

Currently it’s potentially a simple misdemeanor when a local official zeroes out a property tax bill for a family member. This legislation makes it a felony with a potential four-year sentence for those who abuse the power of their office to steal from citizens, and following a finding of guilt, makes removal from office more likely.

At times, the statute of limitations to prosecute official misconduct can run out, leaving prosecutors and taxpayers without a remedy to hold public officials accountable. This bill fixes that by allowing prosecutors and law enforcement to request immediate assistance from the auditor’s office to begin an investigation when they suspect fraud or misconduct by a government official.

Finally, the bill provides additional powers for Missouri courts to address stolen or misappropriated public dollars taken by public officials. If this legislation is passed, judgments can be collected on the public official against their earnings, ensuring tax dollars are recovered.

Over the past two years, the state auditor’s office has conducted audits of governmental entities that have uncovered millions in misspent and misappropriated public dollars. Sometimes the mistakes identified are innocent. Sometimes, however, audits uncover intentional theft and fraud by public officials.

The auditor has uncovered cases of local elected officials eliminating tax payments or fines for family members and friends. We have seen public officials directly steal taxpayer dollars for personal use, such as using an official credit card for thousands of dollars of personal purchases and awarding contracts to themselves that are paid for with your tax dollars.

When intentional misconduct happens, it’s a matter of ethics and integrity. When public officials breach the public trust, prosecutors, law enforcement and the auditor need to be able to effectively work together to protect citizens and remove bad actors from office.

This is the most significant piece of ethics legislation before the Legislature this session. We are proud of the bipartisan support we have been able to build on its behalf. Missourians cannot tolerate corrupt public officials who seek office to serve themselves at the expense of taxpayers. We urge lawmakers and the governor to act swiftly to pass and sign this bill into law so that we will soon have greater powers to hold public officials accountable and clean up corruption at all levels for Missourians.

Nicole Galloway is the state auditor. Also signing are Amy Fite, president of the  Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys; Bob McCulloch, St. Louis County prosecuting attorney; Tim Lohmar, St. Charles County prosecuting attorney; and Kim Gardner, St. Louis city circuit attorney.