News-Leader — The Missouri auditor’s office says Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott called the office in early December “demanding” to know the name of a whistleblower, who alleged the county misused taxpayer resources.
Reached by the News-Leader Tuesday morning, Arnott denies asking for the whistleblower’s name and said the auditor’s office has “mischaracterized everything from the very beginning.”
The allegation from the auditor’s office comes in the form of a letter, sent from attorney Joel Anderson to Arnott’s lawyer, Pat Keck.
Details in the letter, if true, would directly contradict statements recently made in public by Arnott and Keck.
Last week, Keck told KOLR 10 the sheriff is not interested in identifying whistleblowers.
“We have never, ever asked for the information on the whistleblowers,” Keck said during a press conference about a lawsuit between the sheriff and Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway.
Keck fired back at the auditor’s office Tuesday, accusing the office of “misrepresent(ing) the truth to the public.”
“I am quite perplexed at the continuing misstatements and misinformation coming out of the Auditor’s office,” Keck writes in response to the auditor’s office. “To twist the conversation with Sheriff Arnott to conform with the Auditor’s media rhetoric and pet project is at best political, and at worst a way to ‘CYA’ for not providing materials required by Missouri law.”
“CYA” stands for “cover your ass,” Keck told the News-Leader.
In response to a News-Leader request for comment, the auditor’s spokeswoman said Tuesday: “We stand by our letter and prior statements.”
Feuding between Arnott and Galloway continues weeks after a whistleblower alleged Greene County employees were asked to advocate for the sales tax measure leading up to the election, including accepting donations for a political action committee in county offices.
Arnott filed a lawsuit against Galloway on Dec. 29. The sheriff argues open records laws require the auditor to hand over the whistleblower complaints, as he has requested — either with identifying information redacted or through a description of what the withheld documents contain.
Galloway’s office has called the lawsuit “an effort to discover the identities of whistleblowers in Greene County, which we have a duty to protect.”
Arnott has indicated he believes Galloway’s interest in investigating Greene County is politically motivated.
There are key differences between the auditor’s attorney’s description of two conversations with Arnott and the sheriff’s recollection of events.
According to the letter from the auditor’s office, Arnott called on Dec. 6 and 7 asking whether the whistleblowers were sheriff’s office employees. Arnott said he had “several employment actions pending and expressed concern if he fired a whistleblower,” the letter said.
The auditor’s office told Arnott it could not name the whistleblower because none had agreed to have “his, her or their” identities revealed.
According to the auditor’s attorney’s letter, Arnott disagreed with that position, “insisting the Sunshine Law required us to identify the whistleblower(s).”
“The conversation was specifically related to the identity of the whistleblower(s); at no time during this conversation did he ask for the nature of complaints,” the auditor’s attorney writes.
Arnott told the News-Leader the auditor’s office’s claims are wrong — he never asked for the auditor’s office to identify whistleblowers. He just wanted to know if they were in his office, he said, so he would not inadvertently fire or discipline them.
Arnott said if one of his staff needs to be protected, he wants to know.
“I just wanted to make sure I was doing everything correct,” Arnott told the News-Leader. “I did not ask for names, I just asked if they were in the sheriff’s office.”
The sheriff’s attorney’s response on Tuesday includes Arnott’s recollection of the conversations he had with the auditor’s office in December.
“Fortunately, Sheriff Arnott is a detailed documenter and report writer; it is just too bad he did not record the conversation, so we could demonstrate how much the Auditor wishes to stretch the truth,” Keck writes.
Arnott’s account of what happened is as follows, as described by his attorney.
On Dec. 6, Arnott spoke to a man with the auditor’s office. Arnott asked if it could be revealed whether the whistleblower was from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office. Arnott said he has a 350-person department and on average has four employees involved in an internal investigation.
The next day, Arnott heard back. The auditor’s office staff member said he checked with the whistleblower, who did not wish to release that information.
Then, Arnott asked: “How can anyone protect whistleblowers if you do not know who they are?”
Arnott expressed to the auditor’s office that he believes Galloway does not have jurisdiction in Greene County because the county has its own elected auditor. He thanked the auditor’s office for the call, then ended the conversation.
Arnott’s attorney writes that the sheriff’s recollection shows he has never asked for the identity of the whistleblower. Keck says state law does not prohibit the auditor’s office from releasing information about where a whistleblower works.
“The Auditor needs to stop playing politics and follow the law,” Keck writes.
In his letter, Galloway’s attorney also underlined the auditor’s office’s obligation to protect whistleblowers.
“The requirement to keep confidential the identity of a citizen making a report is not intended to keep the government in the dark, but rather to protect the citizen who takes a risk in reporting perceived wrongdoing,” Anderson writes.
Keck said that although state law protects the identity of whistleblowers, the contents of complaints should be made public.
“The reason the legislature did not protect the complaint itself, is because it is of great public interest if a complaint is made that the complaint itself be addressed as soon as possible. How can a public entity address a problem if it is hidden from them?” Keck writes.
Sheriff and auditor hint at lawsuit resolution
In Monday’s letter, the auditor’s attorney offered to review the whistleblower allegations and draft a summary of what they contain.
“We have historically offered to summarize allegations in a manner that allows an interested governmental entity to learn the details of the concerns, but without risking providing a name or sufficient information from which the identity of whistleblowers may be deduced,” Anderson said.
Keck, in her response, thanked him for reaching out to discuss a resolution. She said Arnott is willing to accept the offer of a draft summary of the complaint information.
Keck noted she wishes the auditor would have made the offer sooner, before the suit was filed, when she was asking for more information about the complaints.
Taxpayer dollars are being used to pay for both sides of the suit. Keck, a private lawyer, is hired by the county to represent the sheriff in various legal matters. In the suit, Arnott asks for Galloway to pay his attorney’s fees.
Meanwhile, Galloway has repeatedly asked the Greene County Commission to grant her permission to investigate the allegations. County leaders have so far postponed responding to her request.
An auditor’s office spokeswoman told the News-Leader an additional 20 whistleblowers have come out against Greene County since the first complaint was publicized.