Small towns and local governments in Missouri repeatedly fall victim to fraud by officials who misuse public funds in incidents that tear apart communities and deprive them of precious resources, the Kansas City Star reports. Absent strong safeguards, localities are often a petri dish for fraud and other wrongdoing. Missouri doesn’t impose extensive financial controls on small municipalities, including financial audits. Local government associations promote best practices and training, but too often officials stick to how they’ve always done things. “There’s no question that in many small communities there’s an overriding sense of well, this is the way we’ve always done it,” said former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who was state auditor from 1999 to 2007. “And many times that doesn’t include basic controls you need on financial matters.” The state auditor often plays a pivotal role in exposing misconduct by issuing public reports. However, while the auditor has a relatively free hand to examine state agencies, Missouri law restricts the ability of the auditor to initiate audits of municipalities.
In one case, Tracey Carmen, city clerk in Center, population 528, stole at least $316,887 from 2015 to 2019 by falsifying financial reports and lists of bills prepared for city council meetings — and by exploiting the extraordinary level of autonomy city leaders gave her. She stayed at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the Harbor Shores on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, and an Illinois bed and breakfast — all on the city’s dime. Over four years, she spent $2,645 at a hair salon and $9,621 on restaurants. Amazon and Walmart purchases alone totaled nearly $58,000. The mayor and council didn’t probe deeply into city finances or insist on simple methods of oversight. The scheme collapsed quickly and violently. After learning in late June of 2019 that Center had failed to file required financial reports with the state, the mayor confronted Carman and she promised to address the situation when she returned from vacation on July 1. Carman didn’t show up for work that day. On July 2, the Ralls County sheriff and a deputy attempted to arrest the clerk, who had a gun. They used a taser on her, and the sheriff’s office describes what happened next as a “shootout” that left both the sheriff and deputy injured. Carman’s federal public defender said she fired a round into the ground and that the officers shot her multiple times, but she survived.