While measures were taken to address the appearance of impropriety in an ongoing audit of former Missouri Attorney General-turned U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, there's been no evidence of actual bias in that audit, according to testimony of staff of the Missouri State Auditor's Office.
The office's general counsel and a longtime staff member testified Wednesday afternoon in front of the Missouri House's Special Committee on Government Oversight.
"Anything that we have in an audit report is going to be based on the evidence and facts that we find during the audit. It's not going to be based on somebody's opinion, not going to be based on somebody's political beliefs. It's going to be based on the actual evidence that we find," Jon Halwes said.
Halwes is the director of quality control for the state auditor's office, where he's worked for almost 35 years. He's also the supervisor of an employee whose mistakenly-sent email to the attorney general's office has been used by Sen. Hawley as evidence of alleged bias against him.
Wednesday's hearing was called after Hawley, a Republican, previously alleged the office of Democratic State Auditor Nicole Galloway had tried to alter conclusions of an audit of his tenure as attorney general to be more critical of him — allegedly evidenced by the previously mentioned email.
Hawley and an attorney writing to the auditor's office on his behalf also alleged there were conflicts of interest involving Galloway's ongoing campaign for Missouri governor, and from interactions and relationships with the campaign of Hawley's then-incumbent Democratic rival for the U.S. Senate, Claire McCaskill.
Rep. Robert Ross, R-Yukon, who chairs the House's Special Committee on Government Oversight, said ahead of testimony Wednesday that he felt even the slightest hint of political bias, regardless of party, required the committee to take the time to understand the process of audits and have confidence in the process.
Ross credited Galloway with being "harsh on Democrats and Republicans, and (she has) also given excellent ratings to Republicans."
He added, "Today's hearing is not to dive into any allegation, nor the (Hawley) audit that I'm referring to. My goal is not to ask the auditor's office to break the law and comment on an ongoing audit."
That did not preclude questions from committee members about how the state auditor's office responds to allegations of bias in its work, including in the audit of Hawley.
Halwes said each audit includes an "independence evaluation" form for each involved auditor, in which each auditor self-examines their own potential biases in performing the work.
"There are circumstances that will occur where, say, circumstances change. We've had situations where an auditor will be doing an audit, and then they will potentially apply for a job at the agency that they're auditing. Obviously, that gives the appearance of a conflict. Sometimes, they tell us that they've done that. Sometimes we hear about it through the grapevine," Halwes said.
"But when that would occur, we would remove the auditor from that audit and put them on another audit, not because they've done anything wrong, per se, but the perception would be, 'Can they be independent and perform the audit?' They may or may not be, but the appearance would be that they might not, so they need to be removed from the audit," he added.
Halwes later said the audit director on the Hawley audit was removed from that role about two weeks ago, before Halwes took over, for the appearance of bias.
He later added he couldn't recall another instance where that's occurred at the audit director level.
Hawley alleged the audit director had donated to McCaskill's Senate campaign against him.
The audit director gave $50 on Aug. 10, 2018, to ActBlue, with the contribution earmarked for McCaskill for Missouri. ActBlue is a fundraising platform for Democratic candidates and committees.
Halwes said the office has not evaluated the political donations or the politics of anyone in the office. "Typically, we don't know any auditor's political background."
The state auditor's office's legislative liaison and an attorney — who previously worked for McCaskill's campaign — "explicitly excluded himself" from the audit of Hawley's attorney general tenure, said Paul Harper, general counsel of the auditor's office.
Committee member Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, asked if the office could put a system in place that could screen auditors for any potential biases that have not been self-reported, to avoid appearances of impropriety.
"I look at it this way. Someone can have particular political beliefs, but that doesn't mean that they can't independently audit a particular agency," Halwes said, later identifying himself as a lifelong Republican voter.
"I can audit that agency independently, because my political beliefs and my ability to audit are two different things," he said.
He later added he makes it a personal practice to not make political donations, but there's no office prohibition on that, nor has there ever been.
He disputed it would even be possible or practical for the office to know every employee's political background.
Even if it was possible, Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, envisioned a system where only Republicans get to audit Republicans, and Democrats only get to audit Democrats.
"That seems problematic, and really, truly, if we believed that there was a bias with that, we're creating a bias then by doing that as well," Meredith said, adding, "We'd be doing it in the opposite direction, making all audits favorable to whomever they're auditing, if we believe that there's a bias associated with political party persuasion."
Even if after an auditor maybe doesn't include all potential conflicts of interest on an independence evaluation form, and the office learns about things after the fact or second-handedly that could give the appearance of a conflict, there are safeguards — checks and balances that take care of any potential political zealousness that could be a problem, Halwes said.
He said there's an extensive review process for every audit — at least four levels — making it, he said, "virtually impossible for an audit to be released that would not be independent."
He said the state auditor is typically not involved in the day-to-day activity of audits and gives final review and approval on reports.
Halwes said significant changes are not unusual before the final release of an audit report — such as for tone, grammar and accuracy — but "we determined that there was no impropriety at all in relation to that email," that Hawley had cited as evidence of bias.
After the hearing, the state auditor's office sent a news release saying the office "looks forward to presenting the findings of the audit when it becomes public in the coming weeks."
On Monday, Missouri President Pro Tem Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, gave a letter to Gov. Mike Parson — Galloway's Republican rival for governorship in this year's upcoming election — that outlined Hawley's allegations against Galloway and the office.
Schatz said in the letter he would be advancing legislation to independently audit the state auditor's office. That legislation, Senate Bill 927, had not yet been heard by a committee, as of Wednesday.
The news release from the state auditor's office noted that in May 2018, "The State Board of Accountancy completed a review of Auditor Galloway's licensure and certified that she met the requirements set by the board for certified public accountants for compliance."
Also included: "April 2018: The Missouri General Assembly issued two separate audits of the Missouri State Auditor's Office, which found overall operations are managed professionally and cybersecurity measures are effective. In addition to the audit in 2018, legislative audits of the office occurred in 2016, 2012 and 2007.
"October 2017: The State Auditor's Office received the highest rating possible during a review by the National State Auditors Association. Routine peer reviews take place every three years and another is scheduled for 2020."