By DAVID A. LIEB
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon made the finances of his office look better by shifting $1.7 million of staff, travel and office costs to other agencies over the past several years, according to an audit released Wednesday.
The report by Republican State Auditor Tom Schweich says the Democratic governor tapped the finances of more than a dozen other agencies under his control to essentially spend more than the governor's office had been budgeted. The audit, released just two months before the November election, says Nixon continued to shift some costs even after legislators sought to curtail the practice.
"He's basically thumbing his nose at this office and also at the law, the Legislature and basic accounting principles on issues of travel and salary," Schweich said in an interview.
Nixon has defended his re-allocation of costs by noting other agencies' roles in administering particular programs or policies.
"The office accounts for its operational costs in a manner that properly reflects the nature of the work it performs," the governor's office said in a written response included in the audit.
Nixon spokesman Sam Murphey said the office had no additional comment Wednesday.
The audit puts a three-year dollar figure to Nixon's cost-shifting practices that have been previously reported by The Associated Press and other media outlets. For example, the audit says the governor's office required 14 agencies to pay about $770,000 to help cover the salaries of some of its employees from the time Nixon took office in January 2009 through June 2011.
The audit says Nixon's office billed a dozen agencies a total of $546,000 over that time to cover his flights on state airplanes and charged agencies $37,000 for the meals, mileage, lodging and other travel costs of governor's office employees.
Additionally, four state agencies paid a total of $378,800 to cover dues in the National Governors Association and Southern Governors' Association, the audit said. The Office of Administration paid $21,560 for phones used in the governor's office and $6,191 for gubernatorial envelopes, letterhead and other supplies.
Schweich said the cost-shifting makes it difficult to track the actual operating expenses of Nixon's office, "violates basic principles of accounting" and runs afoul of spending restrictions included in the state budget. He said Nixon should choose one of two options to bring his expenses in line with his budget.
"He can get more money from the Legislature, if he thinks they will give it to him," Schweich said, "or he can cut the costs like all the rest of us have been required to do."
Beginning with the annual budget that took effect July 1, 2011, legislators included wording in the appropriations for most state agencies that prohibits them from paying for the travel or staffing costs of the governor's office or Missouri's five other statewide executive officials, including the auditor. Lawmakers expanded the restriction in the current budget to cover any costs associated with the executive officials. In both years, however, lawmakers included an exception for the Department of Public Safety, so that it could pay for certain gubernatorial costs arising from emergencies and disasters.
The audit said Nixon's office used that exception to charge 35 percent of its flight costs to the Department of Public Safety from July to December 2011.
It said the governor's office attempted to sidestep the staffing restrictions in July 2011 by changing entries in the state accounting system to list its three employees who handle appointments to boards and commissions as instead being employed by the Department of Insurance Financial Institutions and Professional Registration. But the audit said the employees were still physically located in - and supervised by - the governor's office.
Schweich released the audit about two months before the November election but he denied any political motives in the timing, even though Nixon is on the ballot. Schweich said he had hoped to release the audit in June but was delayed because a key staff member was hurt in a vehicle accident and because auditors had trouble getting some information from the Governor's Mansion.