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1,800 Emails Shed Light on Greene County's 'Sausage Making' Ahead of Tax Vote

The emails were recently handed over to the News-Leader

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Nearly 1,800 Greene County emails were recently handed over to the News-Leader.

The collection gives some insight into county leaders' thoughts and plans leading up to the November election, when voters approved a sales tax that is expected to bring in more than $28 million in its first full year.

This correspondence came under scrutiny after the Missouri auditor received a complaint from a whistleblower who alleged the county misused resources to advocate for the tax measure.

The county's sausage-making, previously kept behind-the-scenes, is starting to come to light.

The sheriff compared a commissioner to an octopus. The county spokeswoman had heated exchanges with the top elected official over what she was being asked to do. A county leader was ghost-writing letters signed by prominent community members, urging residents to vote for the tax.

The News-Leader is continuing to work through the collection and we've also requested additional emails.

So far, the messages appear to show Presiding Commissioner Bob Cirtin used his official county email to work on a campaign to convince voters to approve the tax. That would be considered improper use of a county resource, a legal expert said.

Cirtin declined a News-Leader request for comment. An interview was scheduled, but then Cirtin backed out on the advice of his private attorney.

The state auditor has repeatedly asked for permission to investigate the county. Since December, more than 20 whistleblowers have filed complaints. County leaders have said no to the auditor, instead choosing to cooperate with the Missouri Ethics Commission, which launched an investigation into the county after it received a complaint about similar, but separate and more limited, issues.

Synopses of several email conversations among county leaders and employees are below in chronological order. The emails start just hours after the commission voted to put a tax on the November ballot. They continue through mid-December, after the state auditor began asking for permission to investigate Greene County.

A commissioner said emails show an example of bullying and intimidation

The Aug. 28 conversation among several county leaders was started by Greene County Prosecutor Dan Patterson, who pointed out a flaw in Commissioner Lincoln Hough's calculations for an alternative tax plan which would fund a smaller expansion of the overcrowded jail.

In response, Sheriff Jim Arnott compared Hough to an octopus.

"Commissioner Hough should have checked his math before he projected his plan. Reminds me of the octopus, bottom feeder that sprays black dye, confuses everyone and scurries into the dark," Arnott wrote.

Cirtin then wrote: "To political hacks who betray their position, our citizens and employees, accurate information is not necessary. This is not the legislature. We are accountable for what we do and sometimes there are consequences to pay."

In an interview with the News-Leader, Hough pointed to the Aug. 28 email conversation to illustrate his claim that Arnott uses "his political position to try to intimidate other people."

Earlier that day, Hough cast the lone vote against putting the 1/2-cent sales tax on the November ballot. He sees Arnott's octopus comment as name-calling and Cirtin's statement as a veiled threat.

Hough gave other examples as well. In July, the sheriff asked the highway patrol to investigate Hough. After a preliminary inquiry, the highway patrol said Hough did not break any laws. In September, Arnott pulled Hough over for speeding. 

Cirtin and Arnott both denied they were trying to intimidate Hough.

Arnott told the News-Leader he compared Hough to an octopus because he was "confusing everybody by clouding the topic with information that's not correct then never having to answer for it."

Cirtin called Hough's claims "ludicrous" in a previous interview with the News-Leader.

"I'm not going to threaten or try to intimidate Lincoln Hough or anybody else," Cirtin said. "Lincoln can spin it any way he wants to spin it, but you have to eventually deal with the facts."

Read the email: Sheriff compared Lincoln Hough to an octopus after commissioner voted against tax

A question on a legal opinion

Sometime in September, Commissioner Harold Bengsch apparently asked the county counselor, John Housley, for a legal opinion.

The legal opinion was sent to commissioners by County Administrator Chris Coulter on Sept. 7. The text of the opinion was redacted from emails provided to the News-Leader.

Later that day, Cirtin had some questions for Housley.

“I understand your ‘abundance of caution’ statement,” Cirtin wrote. “That’s what we pay you for. However, what would you speculate could be the consequence if we do it anyway.”

Cirtin said Arnott has $50,000 in his campaign account, suggesting that the money could be transferred to the campaign account for the tax campaign.

“Would we have to return it or what do you think?” Cirtin asked.

It’s unclear if there was additional correspondence on this issue.

Read the email: Questions about a legal opinion from Greene County's counsel

The sheriff said he wouldn't support the tax measure unless his staff got raises

On Sept. 27, Arnott told Cirtin, "I cannot support this tax without the pay restructure for the Sheriff's Office."

At the time, a document was being created that summarized for the public which items the proposed tax would fund. Arnott asked that an item be added: "restructuring of the Sheriff's staffing."

Bengsch had opposed the change, saying county employees could misinterpret it as favoritism to one department.

Apparently unhappy with the response, Arnott wrote to Cirtin: "I am taking on all the work and burden with an increased workload with no help. I can not hire the amount of staff to increase the size of our facility without pay restructure. If the Commission and your staff cannot commit on paper to do this, I cannot support the plan that is proposed."

It's unclear if the language the sheriff proposed was eventually added to the summary document.

But in December, Arnott got what he wanted for his office - as part of a new pay structure for all Greene County employees. A pay bump was unanimously approved by the County Commission on Dec. 13.

All county employees received a wage bump of between 3 percent and about 36 percent each, with an average of 8.46 percent across the board, according to Human Resources Director Mailyn Jeffries.

Sheriff's office staff received an average of 9.55 percent, Jeffries said.

Read the email: Greene County sheriff threatened to withhold support of sales tax measure

Letters to the editor were written by the county administrator

Coulter was the author behind letters to the editor submitted under the names of two community leaders, emails show.

On Oct. 9, Cirtin thanked Sam Hamra, a prominent Springfield business leader, for offering to contribute to the Invest in Greene County PAC, a political action committee created to support the tax measure.

Four minutes later, Cirtin emailed other commissioners, Coulter and county spokeswoman Trysta Herzog to say Hamra has agreed to submit a letter to the editor, but wanted someone else to write it.

"There are two ways to approach this," Cirtin said. "We can ask people who know the issues and can write a good letter to submit a letter. Or, we can write the letters and ask prominent people to submit it."

Later in the month, Coulter sent Cirtin an email with two attachments: "I hope these will work and what you were looking for. Feel free to edit away - no feelings will be hurt here as it is my first ever ghost writing of a letter to the editor."

"Ghost writing," the practice of having someone write works which are publicly credited to another person, violates News-Leader's policy.

In a recent interview with the News-Leader, Coulter said he did not know that ghost written articles violated the newspaper's policy and would not have written those letters had he known.

Cirtin said in his experience with various political campaigns, it's common practice to have community leaders sign off on letters they did not write.

The drafts from Coulter closely match two letters to the editor submitted by Hamra and Robert H. Spence, formerly the president of Evangel University.

Though there are some differences in wording between Coulter's drafts and the letters signed by Hamra and Spence - which ran in the News-Leader on Nov. 5, two days before the election - the content is analogous.

Coulter told the News-Leader on Monday that he wrote the letters on his own time, as a private citizen. They were sent from Coulter's personal email address to Cirtin's personal email address, before Cirtin forwarded them to his county email.

An expert in election law was asked by the News-Leader to comment on this conversation as well as other emails.

Brad Ketcher, who served as an election law attorney and former chief of staff for Gov. Mel Carnahan, said Coulter's actions were appropriate because he used a private address and the email was sent after work hours.

By law, government employees are free to advocate for tax measures in their off-duty time, Ketcher said. 

However, Cirtin's Oct. 9 message was questionable, Ketcher said.

"Public officials could discuss among themselves about how to encourage letters to the editor, but they certainly shouldn't use public employees for that, and they shouldn't use a public email system to discuss it," Ketcher said.

The News-Leader also reached out to several other Missouri attorneys and professors versed in campaign and election law. They declined to be interviewed for the report.  

Read the emails: Letters to the Editor to support tax were ghost written by county employee

County spokeswoman pushed back against Cirtin's requests related to the tax

Emails show at least twice in October, Herzog, the county spokeswoman, expressed alarm when Cirtin asked her to do certain things related to the tax measure.

Both times, Cirtin accused her of overreacting.

One incident occurred on Oct. 13, when Cirtin asked Herzog to make changes to a pamphlet, created by a county-hired consulting firm, about the tax.

Herzog said she was uncomfortable with making extensive edits to a document that the county was paying consultants "thousands of dollars" to create.

In an interview with the News-Leader to discuss these emails, Herzog said the pamphlet was intended to be an informational piece. Herzog said she felt it was unfair to taxpayers that the county was paying consultants for work, of which a significant portion was completed by her.

Cirtin replied in an email that he did not think editing would constitute work. He said he will try not to ask or expect Herzog to do anything she did not want to do.

In the emails, Herzog also brings up another point of apparent contention. She talks about the importance of separating advocacy from education. Herzog told the News-Leader it was in reference to a different conversation she had with Cirtin that same day.

Herzog writes: "When I lobby to keep the advocacy and education separate, it isn't because I want to be difficult or obstinate. It is because I have integrity and strongly held ethics. I won't jeopardize that, my reputation or my career. It is my hope that the Commission will continue to respect that I hold myself to such high standards and support me in that decision."

Cirtin responded: "Wow. Redoing anyone's work has nothing to do with a lack of integrity. No one is asking you to do that anyway. Please don't over react. I didn't mention anything about advocacy vs education. We are all very aware of the difference."

Though the pamphlet was billed as purely educational, Ketcher, the election law expert, said it crosses the line into advocacy territory.

That was one of the points made in a complaint a Springfield resident submitted to the Missouri Ethics Commission, which prompted an ongoing ethics commission investigation into Greene County.

Ketcher pointed to phrases on the pamphlet such as "For our future, keep Greene county safe, clean and healthy." 

"The only conclusion that can be drawn from the statement is to vote yes on the measure," Ketcher said.

Under Missouri law, county staff and resources can be used to educate voters about ballot measures. Employees may donate to campaigns or work with political parties when not on duty, but are not allowed to use their official authority or influence to interfere with election results. 

State law prohibits certain employees from engaging in or being forced to engage in political activity while on duty or by using any state resources or facilities. 

About two weeks later, on Oct. 25, Cirtin and Herzog had another tense conversation.

Cirtin asked her to call the News-Leader to get a cost for ads that were paid for by the Invest in Greene County PAC.

Herzog pushed back. She said she could not work for the PAC in any capacity in her role as a county employee.

Cirtin suggested she could use her "lunch break, vacation, etc." to make the call.

Herzog responded: "Bob, you're using County resources to give me an order as my boss to work on behalf of the PAC. Is this not a clear violation of the ethical guidelines set forth by the Ethics Commission?"

Herzog said it's her choice as a private citizen to remain impartial and to not advocate for the sales tax. She once again asked Cirtin to exclude her from any conversations involving advocacy.

Cirtin said Herzog "overreacted" again.

"At no time did I give you an 'order' and any reasonable reading of my email would agree. I would never do that," Cirtin writes.

Ketcher said Herzog did the right thing.

"If (county employees) are being asked to participate on public time in an advocacy effort for a ballot measure, they should decline to do that in order to comply with the law," Ketcher said.

There were a handful of other incidents, Herzog told the News-Leader, which happened in-person or over text messages, which were not reflected in emails.

For example, Herzog said, leading up to the election Cirtin asked her to write a radio script for the PAC. He also asked her to proofread billboard advertisements, she said.

"Each time I declined and repeated my decision for why I was declining," Herzog said.

Herzog said she felt intimidated and feared retaliation.

Herzog said if an employer is repeatedly asking an employee to work for an outside organization, even after when the employee expresses discomfort, "I think it's reasonable to say that employees might feel a perceived threat to their job or position in the organization, whether that's intended or not." 

She noted her decision to not advocate was supported by Bengsch, Hough and Coulter.

Herzog's husband, Stephen, works at the News-Leader as the engagement editor. He has not been involved in writing articles or editorials about Greene County since the whistleblower allegations surfaced.

Trysta Herzog is leaving Greene County in February to become the vice president of community engagement of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ozarks.

Read the emails: Greene County spokeswoman clashes with presiding commissioner over tax campaign

Cirtin apparently used the county's email server to conduct campaign activities

Over the course of several months, Cirtin appeared to periodically use his county email address to conduct advocacy-related business, including creating and approving materials paid for by the Invest in Greene County PAC.

County employees and officials should not use public facilities to conduct advocacy, Ketcher said, and that includes the email system.

A few examples of emails sent on a county server, some during regular business hours, are listed below.

On Sept. 15, Cirtin sent an email to county officeholders and employees that outlined a plan for advocacy. He stressed the importance of keeping the news media in the dark about the campaign strategy being formulated by himself, the sheriff and others.

"We can't have our sausage making appear in the News Leader," Cirtin said.

The News-Leader previously published the "sausage making email," which legal experts said appeared to be a call to mix county resources and political campaigning and could violate state law.

On Oct. 9, after Cirtin thanked Hamra for offering to contribute to the PAC, he directed him to send a check to an address on Sunshine Street.

On Oct. 25, Cirtin sent billboard sign designs that urged people to "Vote 'Yes'"  to the branch president of a local bank, thanking him for supporting the tax initiative.

On Oct. 30, Cirtin coordinated the design of a campaign mailer.

On Oct. 31, he accepted a TV spot script, asking for a yes vote, from a video production and advertising agency.

On Nov. 2, he gave a robocall script to a local union representative to record and send out to union members in support of the tax.

The emails as a whole "suggest a pattern of using county taxpayer resources to advocate for a ballot measure," said Ketcher.

Read the emails: Campaign activity was conducted over county's server, emails appear to show

County residents question the commission's actions, and Cirtin responds

A few Greene County residents reached out to Cirtin after news of the whistleblower complaints broke in December.

They expressed disappointment in the commission's decision to hire Graves Garrett and urged Cirtin to let the state auditor investigate.

One email came from a local pastor on Dec. 12.

"So ... I am a conservative voter who does not trust what I'm seeing from the governor I voted for, or the county commissioners I voted for. That is a shame. Your solution - open the door to the state auditor - if there is nothing to hide. If there is something to hide - lawyer up! Simple," the pastor said.

He said he has voted straight Republican for at least three decades. But now he's "disgusted" with his party and intends to vote for Claire McCaskill and Galloway in 2018.

In a reply later that day, Cirtin thanked the pastor for the email. He said "as a committed Christian I believe in personal responsibility, therefore I will take full responsibility for my actions."

Cirtin said the County Commission has yet to decide whether to allow Galloway to investigate. He said the cost of the auditor's investigation "would be much more than the cost of legal council."

Galloway has since offered to audit at no cost to the county. Cirtin has said there is "no such thing as a free audit" and that state taxpayers would still be footing the bill.

Recently, two county commissioners decided against allowing Auditor Nicole Galloway in for an investigation. They say the Missouri Ethics Commission - already looking into a similar but separate complaint about the sales tax measure - is the best and only authority to look into the county's actions.

The odd commissioner out, Hough, has held firm in his stance that an audit by Galloway is the most open and transparent process for addressing concerns from whistleblowers.

The Sunshine request

The News-Leader asked Ketcher how the emails might fit into the larger picture of what happened in Greene County before and after the election.

Ketcher responded: "The emails are a real time record of what was occurring in county government. While they’re not the whole story they’re very likely a substantial part of the story. Lawyers have a saying: the 'e' in email stands for evidence."

The News-Leader request was for all emails sent to or from Cirtin, between Sept. 1 and Dec. 14, which included any of the following words: campaign, committee, contribution, investigate, PAC, sunshine, tax and whistleblower.

An additional request was submitted to include a conversation which occurred in late August.

Cirtin is the top elected official in Greene County and helped lead education and advocacy efforts leading up to the Nov. 7 election. He was also the author of the Sept. 15 email, previously obtained by the News-Leader, which described a plan for advocacy.

The News-Leader has a similar request pending for emails involving the sheriff.

Have more information? You can reach this News-Leader reporter at dzhu@news-leader.com or at 417-836-1138.

(Story shared by Springfield News-Leader. Read the original article here.)


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