Gov. Mike Parson might choose to be coy with Missouri taxpayers about his disbursement of $2.38 billion in federal coronavirus funding. But he’s making a big mistake by trying to hide spending details from State Auditor Nicole Galloway. It’s fairly clear from his office’s letter of refusal on April 22 that he has no intention of boosting the profile of Missouri’s only statewide Democratic elected official — and the candidate most likely to oppose him on the ballot in November.
Try as Parson might to cherry-pick state law to justify his refusal, the law is clearly on the auditor’s side. Parson cannot legally block the office’s access to the records of state agencies spending those funds. She has subpoena power and can force compliance if necessary. Even Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft took advantage of her subpoena powers when trying to compel compliance with an investigation targeting misuse of state resources by then-state Attorney General Josh Hawley.
Why shouldn’t Galloway just trust Parson to do the right thing with the federal money? He seems like an earnest guy. It would take a pretty coldhearted individual to misdirect pandemic funding or try to exploit it for political purposes.
The problem is, Parson increasingly has opted for secrecy where transparency is required. He tried to manipulate press briefings to avoid answering probing questions. He has politicized the appointment of an advisory group charged with helping him direct coronavirus disbursements. And last week he outright fabricated information to attack this newspaper after we raised concerns over his nonchalance about the pandemic threat facing rural Missourians.
That’s not the behavior of someone who deserves trust with $2.38 billion. Trust or not, it’s the state auditor’s job to apply scrutiny. The first two responsibilities outlined in state law for the auditor are to: “Examine all books, accounts, records, reports, vouchers of any state agency or entity ... that pertain to: (a) Amounts received under a grant or contract from the federal government or the state or its political subdivisions; (b) Amounts received, disbursed, or otherwise handled on behalf of the federal government or the state.”
The law also states the auditor’s office “shall have free access to all offices of this state for the inspection of such books, accounts and papers.”
The authority of the auditor’s office to examine all books and records on demand seems indisputable. But Parson’s general counsel informed Galloway that she has no such authority. His letter said if she wants more information she can watch Parson’s briefings online, go to his Facebook page, visit health.mo.gov, or access what she can through the state financial system.
If Parson’s reelection strategy is to present himself as the anti-transparency Defender of Darkness, good luck with that. The law is on the side of sunshine and the public’s right to know.
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