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County tussles with lingering whistleblower, ethics complaints

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Amid allegations of misused public resources in Greene County, the state auditor’s office recently released the identity of a whistleblower and county officials are shunning the auditor’s investigation in favor of a review by Missouri Ethics Commission.

The complaint filed with the auditor’s office and the ethics commission stems from actions leading up to the county’s successful November ballot item when voters approved a new half-cent general revenue sales tax. County officials have said the tax, which doesn’t have a sunset, will generate $25.5 million annually for the jail, justice system and other county projects.

Thirty-eight pages of documentation, including emails, provided to Springfield Business Journal by Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway’s office show former county Communications and Public Engagement Director Trysta Herzog was the first of 22 whistleblowers who brought on the challenge. Herzog, who started Feb. 5 in a new role as vice president of community engagement for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ozarks Inc., filed the whistleblower complaint with Galloway’s office Nov. 29, after the new tax passed.

In the documents, Herzog claims she “faced nearly daily coercion on county campus, through county email and county-paid cellphone, from Presiding Commissioner Bob Cirtin to participate in political activities as part of my job.”

Herzog said she and others were told by Cirtin to spend work time on the Invest in Greene County Political Action Committee for the tax proposal, organize employee advocacy efforts, raise funds and come up with lists of donors. Herzog believes the actions violated Missouri Statutes related to prohibitions on political activities by government employees, and she says she declined to perform the work Cirtin told her to do that would violate the law, according to the documents. Under Missouri law, public funds may not be used to advocate, support or oppose ballot measures or candidates for public office. Officials are allowed to provide information to residents about upcoming ballot measures.

In the documents, Herzog provided notes from a complaint she filed with the county’s human resources department. She detailed an alleged encounter with Cirtin around Aug. 27, 2017, prior to the launch of tax campaigning efforts.

“Bob engaged me in a discussion that I view now as grooming me to be compliant to his demands,” Herzog wrote. “He told me that I owe my position to him as he, and he alone, got me the job. I am to be loyal to him above all commissioners, I am not to speak in meetings and I cannot refuse work assigned to me.

“In later meetings, he indicated that I must earn my right as director, that I am an overpaid (public information officer), that he has ousted directors before me and could do it again.”

Herzog also alleged in the documents to the auditor’s office that Cirtin moved to retaliate against her after she expressed concerns over the alleged misuse of public funds. Specifically, she claims Cirtin attempted to interfere with her pay by docking it between $1,000 and $5,000.

After receiving Herzog’s whistleblower complaint, Galloway’s office in December 2017 issued a news release saying it was seeking permission to conduct an audit over the alleged misuse of public funds. First-class counties must pass an ordinance or resolution allowing audits.

The audit request sparked a lawsuit by Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott, who claims the auditor’s office withheld needed documents containing the whistleblower complaints after he filed a Sunshine Law request. The auditor’s office released Herzog’s documentation, in part, to satisfy that request, according to a news release.

In an interview with Springfield Business Journal, Cirtin cited advice from his attorney when declining to specifically address Herzog’s claims and the allegations of misuse of public funds.

“There will be an opportunity to do so. When the opportunity comes, I will have a lot to say,” Cirtin said. “Just because somebody says something, that doesn’t automatically make it true.”

Cirtin indicated he might call a news conference after the Missouri Ethics Commission completes its investigation of county officials’ alleged misuse of employee work time to promote the sales tax. With the MEC’s 90-day window to investigate claims, Cirtin believed the investigation would be completed by the end of February. MEC Executive Director James Klahr could not be reached for comment by deadline.

Meanwhile, Cirtin said county officials are fully cooperating with the MEC and delivering documents as requested.

Cirtin said the Greene County Commission’s hired law firm, Kansas City-based Graves Garrett LLC, recommended the commissioners also hire their own personal attorneys for the investigation process. Cirtin’s personal attorney is Lowell Pearson of Husch Blackwell LLP’s Jefferson City office.

The commission’s attorneys are conducting interviews with county officials and will hand over their findings to the ethics commission, Cirtin said. Pearson is working to help guide him through the process.

Conversely, Cirtin said the county is uninterested in Galloway’s process that followed Herzog’s whistleblower complaint to the office.

“We have always maintained that the Missouri Ethics Commission is the only agency who can investigate and adjudicate these issues,” Cirtin said. “The state auditor’s office, even if they would do an investigation, they would send their findings to the Missouri Ethics Commission. That is why we have not utilized the state auditor’s office.”

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