(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) St. Joseph School District administrators say the Missouri Secretary of State has overstepped his authority and say they fear political motives are involved in an investigation into a possible ethics violation related to the campaign for a new tax levy.
"The District vigorously denies violating any laws," said part of a release distributed to the media Thursday night. "Missouri law clearly allows the District to advise the public as to the impact of a ballot measure, and explain how tax dollars will be spent. This is the very definition of transparency."
Earlier Thursday, the Missouri Secretary of State directed the state's attorney general to look into a possible ethics violation by the St. Joseph School District in its campaign to have voters approve a new tax levy.
A release from Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft on Thursday read in part, "Government should strive for full transparency and accountability, and taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely no matter the level of government."
However, KQ2 News has confirmed that campaign finance reports for both Ashcroft and Attorney General Josh Hawley show significant contributions by Herzog Contracting, which is also almost entirely funding the campaign opposing the tax levy.
According to Missouri Ethics Commission reports, Herzog has contributed $100,000 to Ashcroft and $275,000 to Hawley. The St. Joseph contracting company has also given $40,000 to Support a Better SJSD, a committee formed in opposition of the school levy.
Earlier this week, Eldon Green, a local businessman and former teacher in the St. Joseph School District, filed the official ethics complaint against the district. Green is also listed as the treasurer for the Support a Better SJSD campaign. He says the district illegally produced printed materials and posted items on its Facebook page encouraging voters to vote "yes" on the tax levy question.
"I think this is another example of the overreach that we've seen in the district where they are spending money without accountability," Green said in an interview with KQ2 News. "This is another example of not being a good steward for the citizenry and the students."
Missouri Law prohibits using taxpayer dollars to support the passage of any ballot issue.
According to the Missouri Ethics Commission executive director, generally his office has up to five days to inform the subject of an ethics complaint in writing. Then, an investigator has up to 90 days to look into the case before a commission of six members decides whether an actual violation has been made.
District officials say they believe that Ashcroft is violating Missouri law by interfering in the process.
"Unfortunately, Secretary Ashcroft has not himself followed Missouri law, according to the school district’s legal counsel. Missouri statutes are clear about the process Secretary Ashcroft must follow, but he has failed to do so," read the district's statement. "He is authorized to refer a complaint to the local prosecuting attorney, not the Attorney General, and then only after he has conducted an investigation and issued a statement of probable cause. He has done neither, but instead has asked the Attorney General to investigate. Missouri law does not allow Attorney General Hawley to be involved in this complaint."
St. Joseph School District Superintendent Robert Newhart says he has received no official notification of the ethics complaint. He said to this point, he has only relied on media reports that anything has been filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
The quick response by Ashcroft's office in this case caught many by surprise and has some questioning the motivation behind his interest in St. Joseph's tax levy vote.
"No one from the Secretary of State’s office has even discussed the complaint with any District official," said the statement. "Aside from its concerns over Secretary Ashcroft’s failure to follow the law, the District is further troubled by the fact that the leading opponent of Proposition 1, Herzog Contracting Corp., contributed $125,000 last year to Secretary Ashcroft’s campaign. This leads the District to believe that this is really a last-minute, coordinated effort by those opposing Proposition 1 to smear the school district, and ultimately harm the children of St. Joseph. Proposition 1 is a non-partisan issue."
KQ2 has contacted Ashcroft's office for a response.
St. Joseph voters go to the polls next Tuesday, November 7, to determine the fate of the tax levy. If passed, it would generate around $11.5 million in new revenue for the school district, erasing a $7 million annual budget deficit and provide additional funding for other programs.
Those against the levy say the district is not at the point yet to request funding from the public. They say the proposed plan is too vague and does not include a sunset clause, which would demand additional accountability from administrators and other district leadership.