A Greene County judge indicated the court will appoint a special prosecutor to look into a complaint calling for Presiding Commissioner Bob Cirtin to be removed from office.
Controversy has surrounded the top elected official in Greene County since a whistleblower complained to the state auditor's office that public resources may have been misused to advocate for a new 1/2-cent sales tax.
The appointment comes in response to a request from Springfield resident Linda Simkins, who filed an affidavit Feb. 8 alleging that Cirtin committed "willful, corrupt or fraudulent violations or neglect of his official duties."
In her affidavit, Simkins included emails and other documents that were part of the complaint from the original whistleblower — later identified as former Greene County spokeswoman Trysta Herzog — as well as records obtained by the News-Leader in a Sunshine Law request.
Emails showed that Herzog pushed back against Cirtin when she was asked to complete certain tasks related to promoting the sales tax. They also show that a county employee had ghostwritten letters signed by prominent community members, urging residents to vote for the tax.
Simkins cited those incidents and more in her affidavit.
Simkins asked for a special prosecutor to investigate Cirtin's activities and to file a petition to remove Cirtin from office.
Reached by the News-Leader, Simkins said she was "in a state of shock" that her request was heard.
"Oh my god, do you know how unusual this is?" Simkins said. "This is just astounding. Astounding."
Simkins later said in a written statement that the planned appointment of a special prosecutor "is a huge victory for Greene County citizens."
"I am very pleased that the Court will appoint a special prosecutor. I filed the Affidavit for Removal on the behalf of all citizens of Greene County. Now the citizens can get an impartial investigation into the conduct of Bob Cirtin. This is truly an extraordinary remedy and an extraordinary day for Greene County citizens," Simkins said.
Originally, a hearing for Simkins' affidavit was scheduled for Friday morning. The hearing was canceled, and in a notice, Judge Michael Cordonnier explained why.
Greene County Prosecutor Dan Patterson had recused himself from the case. In February, he had referred the matter to the Missouri Attorney General's Office.
On April 2, Patterson wrote a status update to Cordonnier. Patterson said the matter "is currently under review" by the attorney general's office.
A few days later, Simkins objected, arguing that the prosecutor does not have the authority to make a referral to the attorney general.
Cordonnier appeared to agree. The court will consider the prosecutor's recusal as a request to appoint a special prosecutor, according to an online court notice.
The notice said parties will be notified when the appointment of a special prosecutor is made.
Cirtin sent a written statement in response to a News-Leader request for comment.
"This entails one of many complaints submitted by Linda Simkins," Cirtin wrote. "This complaint was sent to the Greene County Prosecutor who determined that the appropriate way to handle the matter is to refer it to the Missouri Attorney General's office which was done on February 9, 2018. Only Judge Cordonnier can explain why he waited more than two months to take action now when the Attorney General and Missouri Ethics Commission are already looking into the issues."
Messages left with Cordonnier were not returned.
Senior Judge J. Miles Sweeney told the News-Leader that while the appointment of special prosecutors is not unusual, the appointment of one to investigate an elected official could be unprecedented in Greene County.
Sweeney previously served as a judge in Greene County for 23 years, nine of which were spent as presiding judge.
"A special prosecutor for a Greene County official — that's a new one. I never saw that happen in my tenure, and I'm going to guess this is the first time this has happened in anyone's memory," Sweeney said. "But it makes a certain amount of sense. It's tough for the prosecuting attorney's office to be investigating a public official. They're all linked together in budget and all kinds of things."
The Greene County circuit court recently announced that it will be convening a grand jury, the first since 2011.
On March 13, Cordonnier issued an order to impanel a grand jury at Patterson's request, according to a news release from the 31st Judicial Circuit Court.
Sweeney said it's possible that if the special prosecutor finds evidence of wrongdoing, he or she may bring it to the grand jury. The special prosecutor could also choose to file charges directly.
"It's kind of touchy to be dealing with an elected public official. Good thing about taking it to a grand jury is that it would be reviewed by 12 impartial citizens who have no connection to the county (government)," Sweeney said.
Simkins alleged that Cirtin "neglect(ed) his duties as Presiding Commissioner" by working on behalf of a political action committee during normal business hours. The Invest in Greene County PAC was set up in September to raise money in support of the sales tax proposal.
She also alleged that Cirtin violated campaign ethics law by using public funds, including county employee time and county computers and servers, to promote the tax.
Simkins said there was "coercion and intimidation" of public employees to advocate for the tax, including raising money and collecting donations at county offices for the PAC and preparing campaign materials.
In November, Herzog wrote in her complaint to the auditor's office: "Leading up (to) the election, I feel I faced nearly daily coercion on County campus, through County email and County-paid cell phone from Presiding Commissioner Bob Cirtin to participate in political activities as part of my job."
Herzog believed Cirtin attempted to retaliate against her, she said, by attempting to dock her overall compensation.
Simkins' affidavit also alleged that Cirtin created a "hostile and intimidating work environment for County employees and fellow officeholders." She referenced Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott's request for the Missouri State Highway Patrol to investigate Commissioner Lincoln Hough over an alleged failure to pay property taxes. The highway patrol determined that Hough did not break any laws. Hough had told the News-Leader that he believed that the sheriff uses "his political position to try to intimidate other people" but made no mention of Cirtin.
In late November, Simkins also filed a complaint against Greene County with the Missouri Ethics Commission. The alleged ethics violation also had to do with misuse of taxpayer resources.
It is unclear when the county may hear back about the results of the ethics commission's investigation. Due to the expiration of some members' terms, the commission lacked a quorum to meet. On Friday, Gov. Eric Greitens appointed two new members to the ethics commission, and an attorney previously said the county commission is "very confident" the ethics commission will issue a decision "in the near future."
(Story shared by Springfield News-Leader. For original story, click here)
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