A state auditor’s review questions whether the attorney general’s office has eliminated the possibility of conflicts of interest involving entities it is investigating, and whether staff raises have been excessive.
After a New York Times article outlined cases of lawyers and lobbyists being investigated by Attorney General Chris Koster’s office donating to his campaign while those investigations were happening, Koster said his campaign will no longer accept contributions from entities with litigation pending against his office or their lobbyists or law firms.
The state auditor said Koster’s policy should be put in writing. Koster’s office said doing so would mean its attorneys would have to know who political contributors are and make decisions based on that knowledge, giving a potential contributor power over whether the office would investigate him or her.
Deputy State Auditor Harry Otto told Missourinet without a policy in writing, there is too much room for the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“The policy that has been adopted, has been adopted by the campaign, as opposed to the office,” Otto said. “The campaign is relying upon the donor to self report conflicts, when in fact the donor should not know, in many cases, that there is a conflict, because the donor shouldn’t know that they are being investigated or that they are a law firm that’s representing a company that’s being investigated.”
He suggests the campaign should go to the attorney general’s office with a list of potential solicitors and the office could tell it which solicitors to avoid, without giving any details on why they should be avoided.
“It probably takes something almost like an IG, an Inspector General, sitting inside the AG’s office to stay in tune with the campaign,” said Otto. “Where are the campaign fundraisers, who’s on the invite list, what money has come in? And if money’s come in and they know by working inside the office, that is an appearance of a conflict, send the money back. Do not take the money or return the money.”
Otto doesn’t disagree with the attorney general’s office’s contention that the attorneys working on investigations shouldn’t know who the campaign donors are, but said some policy needs to be in writing to prevent the appearance of a conflict.
“Play that out,” said Otto. “[Those attorneys] don’t know, they don’t care [where the contributions are coming from], they’re doing a professional job, but at the same time they’re doing an investigation the campaign’s taking a big contribution. That doesn’t pass the smell test. Even thought it may be as innocent as it can be, it just doesn’t pass the test to the man on the street.”
The auditor also criticized the attorney general’s office for granting 279 raises greater than those received by other state employees from 2012 through August 2014, averaging 9-percent per raise.
Koster’s office said it reduced its staff to free up money for those raises so it wouldn’t go over budget, and said the raises allowed it to retain and hire talented attorneys and staff. It criticized the auditor’s view that those raises did not appear reasonable, and reductions in benefits for state employees.
Otto said his office has been consistent in saying state offices should stay within the raises that are included in the budget that is adopted by the legislature and the governor.
“We have the same issue here with retaining [certified public accountants] with the salaries that we can pay, but we soldier on with what we have and try the very best we can to stay under those raises,” said Otto.
Among the audit’s other findings, it said attorney general’s office employees often make lodging reservations without first doing price comparisons. It said in many instances lodging costs appeared excessive, and there was not documentation of why higher costs were necessary and reasonable.
The attorney general’s office said in response that it has stayed within its travel budget each year since Koster took office, and said it works to get the best rates available with the accommodations necessary when attorneys and staff must stay in hotels or motels.
The auditor also recommended the attorney general’s employees be required to periodically change their passwords. The attorney general’s office said it will begin requiring a change every 90 days.