APNewsBreak: Records show Montana official’s vehicle misuse

Monday, October 14, 2019

HELENA (AP) — Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton put tens of thousands of miles on a state-owned pickup truck and used it extensively during weekends and holidays in addition to other travel that legislative auditors said violated state policy, an Associated Press review has found.

A state audit of the secretary of state’s office covering two fiscal years ending in June 2018 found Stapleton’s travel to his home in Billings violated policy. After auditors questioned the use, Stapleton returned the vehicle to the motor pool in March 2019.

An AP examination of Stapleton’s use of the truck between July 2018 and March 2019 found the first-term Republican, who is running for Montana’s U.S. House seat, improperly used the truck to regularly travel from Helena to his home in Billings.

Over the entire lease, he also traveled thousands of miles in the 2015 GMC Sierra during weekends and holiday periods when he had no official events scheduled, according to the AP review of government documents obtained through public-records requests.

Stapleton declined multiple requests for interviews by the AP. His office manager and spokeswoman, Susan Ames, said Stapleton traveled to fulfill his job responsibilities and a long-term vehicle lease was the most efficient and least costly way of doing so.

“Three government agencies have investigated and found no wrongdoing by anyone in the agency, including the secretary,” Ames said. She did not respond to an email asking which agencies found no wrongdoing.

Auditors found nearly half of Stapleton’s travel over the first 18 months of the lease violated a policy that says state-owned vehicles can only be used for commuting distances of less than 30 miles (48 kilometers) and only if the employee is on call for a quick response to an emergency that threatens life or property. The audit could not conclude how the vehicle was used 25% of the time.

The audit, completed earlier this year, found Stapleton improperly used the pickup truck to commute from Helena to Billings, where he said he “teleworked” part time, from January 2017 through June 2018. He had driven the truck just over 45,000 miles (72,417 kilometers) at that point.

The audit findings were turned over to the Department of Justice, which forwarded them to Helena police in June.

Helena police Officer Jayson Zander, who led the investigation, said Stapleton told him that while he doesn’t need to respond to emergencies, his job requires him to be available at all times.

“He compared his job to that of the Governor or Attorney General,” Zander wrote in his findings. “He explained that if there was a call in Glendive for a report of election fraud, he would have to respond and could not tell them that they would have to wait until Monday.”

Stapleton also acknowledged using the pickup to travel to medical appointments in Bozeman, Zander said in his report. It is a violation of government policy to use a state vehicle for personal travel.

Helena’s city attorney, Thomas Jodoin, declined to file charges. He said in July that the one-year statute of limitations for filing a misdemeanor charge had expired.

But public records show Stapleton continued to use the pickup from July 2018 through March 2019 to travel to Billings as well as other events around the state, tallying another 25,000 miles (40,232 kilometers), before the pickup was returned to the motor pool.

That additional travel was not reviewed by auditors or Helena police.

Helena police investigated “and my office reviewed, the allegations that were presented to us,” Jodoin said. “No allegations of unlawful use of a state vehicle from July 1, 2018 to when the vehicle was returned to the state motor pool were provided to HPD or my office.”

An AP analysis of Stapleton’s daily schedule and records of the truck’s mileage and fueling dates found that in addition to commuting to Billings, he traveled hundreds of miles on weekends and holidays when he did not have any official events scheduled.

— The pickup was fueled up Friday morning, June 9, 2017, in Hardin and two days later in Garryowen after having traveled more than 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers). The pickup averaged about 350 miles (563 kilometers) per tank, so it was likely filled up two other times between those dates. The towns are 19 miles (31 kilometers) apart.

— From June 20-27, 2017, between fuel-ups in Helena, the pickup traveled 347 miles (558 kilometers) while Stapleton’s wife was posting pictures on Facebook from a family reunion in Ennis and a trip to Virginia City. Stapleton, who is shown in two of those pictures, had no official events that week.

— From July 1-4, 2017, the pickup traveled at least 640 miles (1,030 kilometers) and was filled up in Miles City on Sunday, July 2. His most recent official event had been June 8, 2017, in Helena.

— From June 21 through June 28 in 2018, the pickup was filled up in Billings, Superior, St. Regis and Helena and traveled 890 miles (1,432 kilometers), according to state Motor Pool records. It traveled 249 miles (401 kilometers) between the Superior fill-up early on a Friday afternoon and the St. Regis stop at about noon the next Monday. Superior and St. Regis are 14 miles (23 kilometers) apart.

Stapleton’s office did not respond to requests for comment on his travel outside of teleworking and official events.

Stapleton told auditors and Helena police that he was committed to efficiently serving and conducting regular outreach to the 220,000 businesses, 56 county election offices and 700,000 registered voters in Montana, and did so by holding some office hours at his residence in Billings.

“The agency sought and was granted permission from the Governor’s budget director for a longterm motor pool vehicle lease to support agency missions,” Stapleton wrote in response to the audit.

Budget Director Tom Livers said the permission was granted for a lease “to be used only in accordance with state law.”

Stapleton’s staff said he used his Billings office as a base to shorten trips around eastern Montana and eliminate hotel costs, but a review of travel records indicate he drove to Billings after attending official events in Great Falls, Libby, Havre, Anaconda, Butte, Big Sandy, Kalispell, Ennis, Conrad and Shelby when it would have been a shorter drive to Helena.

Questions about Stapleton’s travel were first raised in October 2018, when his office told the state budget office he would be requesting a replacement vehicle “due to high mileage,” the governor’s office said.

At that point, the pickup’s odometer was close to turning over 100,000 miles (160,927 kilometers).

The budget office emailed the secretary’s office with policies outlining appropriate use of state vehicles and with a notice the office was declining the request for a replacement vehicle unless it was going to be used according to state policy. The secretary’s office did not respond to either email, said Marissa Perry, a spokeswoman for Gov. Steve Bullock.

In response to the audit, Stapleton wrote that his office “agrees with the Legislative Audit Division that routine private-personal use of state vehicles is not permitted.”

The truck had just under 45,000 miles (72,420 kilometers) on it at the start of the lease and he returned it to the motor pool 27 months later with an odometer reding of 112,524 miles (181,089 kilometers). The lease cost his office about $19,000 based on the daily rates and mileage charges in effect during that time.

Since he returned the truck at the end of March, Stapleton has used shortterm leases of motor-pool vehicles for trips to Hamilton, Red Lodge, Polson, Billings and Philipsburg. During the five months from April 1 through Aug. 31, leases that can be matched with Stapleton’s official travel totaled 2,500 miles (4,023 kilometers) and cost $632, lease records show.

During the long-term lease, he traveled an average of 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) per month at an average cost of $714.

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