A Cole County judge Thursday ruled that the state board that regulates accountants has no oversight over the Missouri auditor's office.
The ruling came as result of a lawsuit filed in 2021 by then-Auditor Nicole Galloway after she faced sanctions from the Missouri Board of Accountancy over audits criticizing Sen. Josh Hawley's use of public funds while he was state attorney general.
Among Galloway's findings were that Hawley may have misused state resources to boost his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. But whether Hawley ultimately broke the law was unclear, the audit concluded, because the attorney general's office conducted business off government servers through use of private email and text messaging.
Hawley responded by demanding the board of accountancy investigate Galloway, and it eventually sanctioned her for including full transcripts of interviews in her final audit report.
The board claimed Galloway violated a state law against publicly releasing working papers relating to audit reports.
Galloway sued, arguing the board was misapplying a state statute in a way that could bar the auditor's office from publicly disclosing facts and findings about government inefficiencies, waste, fraud and abuse.
According to the lawsuit, the board's interpretation would give government entities veto power over information included in audits as well as endanger the CPA licenses of people working in the auditor's office.
Cole County Judge Jon Beetem agreed.
If a person or agency is required to give consent for information to be included in a public report, "some investigations would come to a halt as the certified public accountants would need to choose between reporting on the matters before them or risk discipline against their license," Beetem wrote in an 18-page ruling Thursday.
Beetem wrote the board of accountancy "has no jurisdiction over the performance of the constitutional or statutory duties of the state auditor's office."
In addition to concluding that Hawley may have used state resources to boost his 2018 Senate campaign, Galloway's audit also found Hawley used a state vehicle, driven by a state employee, on trips where the purpose was not documented in travel itineraries or vehicle mileage logs. The Kansas City Star had previously reported Hawley used a state car for political events.
To support the underlying findings, Galloway's 450-page report included transcripts of depositions with former staff, emails, financial records and other documents.
Hawley cried foul, denying any wrongdoing and filing a complaint with the board of accountancy.
Eight months later -- and just one month before the November election in which Galloway was challenging Republican Gov. Mike Parson --the board launched its formal investigation.
Galloway went on to lose the election to Parson. She chose not to run for another term as auditor last year and was replaced in January by Republican Scott Fitzpatrick.
"I appreciate the decision of the court to preserve the constitutional and statutory authority of the state auditor's office to serve as the independent watchdog for Missouri taxpayers," Fitzpatrick said in a statement to the Independent. "This ruling affirms my position, and that of the former administration, that government entities subject to a state audit do not have veto power over the state auditor's decisions about what information will be included in public reports pursuant to the audits we conduct."
Last November, the use of private emails by Hawley's staff once again garnered headlines when the same Cole County judge determined the practice constituted a knowing violation of the Sunshine Law.
The motivation for breaking the law, the judge concluded, was concern that releasing the records could harm Hawley's Senate campaign.
The Missouri Independent, www.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.