Missouri auditor's race takes negative turn

Monday, October 9, 2006

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Like pumpkins before Halloween, October is ripe with negative politics in an election season. Yet something seems just a little peculiar about the criticism arising in the state auditor's race.

Put simply: The attacks just aren't the type of things people typically understand.

The candidates are bickering over bookkeeping methods, the qualifications of certified public accounts and the legal responsibilities of county auditors to check into the bank balances of some private individuals.

Perhaps it's because the candidates for the Nov. 7 election have remarkably similar resumes that the campaigns of Democratic Buchanan County Auditor Susan Montee and Republican Platte County Auditor Sandra Thomas have delved into such minutia for their attacks.

Perhaps it's also a good political science lesson of what happens when there is an open statewide office (when there is no incumbent vs. challenger). In this case, the state auditor's office is open because incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill is instead running against Republican Sen. Jim Talent.

With an open seat, "you get better qualified candidates, better funded candidates and you also get lots of negative advertising," said political scientist Beth Miller, of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "You're both qualified, so what do you do? You have to find very small things that might implicate the other candidate in some kind of shady deal or corrupt practices."

Of course, the campaigns don't promote the revelations as small things -- they're big deals.

Consider a four-day stretch last week in the state auditor's race.

On Day 1, Thomas called a Capitol news conference to claim Montee "continues to pass the buck" when it comes to auditing Buchanan County Public Administrator Bonnie Sue Lawson, who resigned in August after investigators seized items from her office. Investigators believed money had been improperly been taken out of some client accounts overseen by Lawson.

Thomas claims Montee should have audited the accounts. Montee claims state law allows her only to audit only the public dollars spent by the county's public administrator, not the private money of the individuals managed by the administrator.

"Anytime there is a problem like this, where money is walking out the door, the auditor has some responsibility," said Thomas, who provided documents showing she had looked at some of the public money spent on behalf of people by the Platte County public administrator.

But, Montee rebutted: "She can't audit the personal finances and the bank accounts of the individual wards of the court, and for her to suggest otherwise is unfounded and it's just misleading."

Later, Montee's campaign pointed to a 1979 legal opinion by then-Republican Attorney General John Ashcroft, who concluded county auditors lack the authority to audit the accounts of estates being managed by public administrators.

On Day 2, Montee turned the attacker. She declared Thomas "hypocritical" for proposing a constitutional amendment requiring state auditors to be certified public accounts. Although both Montee and Thomas are CPAs, Montee pointed to documents showing that while Thomas had passed the CPA test in 1990 she had not become a licensed CPA until August 2002 -- more than seven years after Thomas took office as a county auditor.

There was a brief cease-fire on Day 3, when there was plenty of other news occurring.

Then on Day 4, Montee's campaign cited unnamed sources while accusing Thomas of using an outside auditing firm to "ghostwrite" the financial reports that earned the Platte County auditor the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting.

Thomas has boasted often of the award, which is given to numerous financial officers annually. But "in the end, it's kind of like entering a baking contest with a cake by Martha Stewart and bragging when you win," said Montee campaign manager Sean Spence.

The accusation is "false and it's ridiculous," countered Thomas campaign consultant Jeff Roe, who insisted Thomas and her staff had prepared the financial reports themselves. Then Roe resurrected an accusation from weeks past, criticizing Montee for using a cash-basis accounting system.

"It's the equivalent of teaching her employees in the auditor's office to duck and cover when the Russians are going to drop the bomb," said Roe, not to be outdone by Spence's analogy.

Spence claims the Montee campaign has "more stuff" on Thomas than existed on the opponents of any of the 200 candidates with whom he has worked.

"We're not going to bring all of it out, but we'll bring a lot of it out" before Election Day, he said.

Roe laughs long and loudly at that assertion, then makes of his own against Montee: "She is a walk-in closet full of skeletons."

The campaigns, no doubt, are hoping that at least one of their negative assertions sticks with voters on Election Day.

But Miller, the political scientist, believes it's unlikely the winner of Missouri's auditor race will be determined by the candidates themselves. Of greater weight, she said, is which political party or ideological group is best at mobilizing its supporters.

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