Lawmakers on Wednesday grilled a stand-in for Secretary of State Corey Stapleton about the elected official's use of a state-owned pickup for repeated trips between Helena and Billings, something legislative auditors call a misuse of state resources.
In a report released earlier this month, legislative auditors said 27,000 miles worth of travel on the half-ton pickup, including many trips on weekends, could not be attributed to performing the duties of the secretary of state's office. Stapleton is required by the state Constitution to live in Helena, and was going to Billings, where his family lives.
Auditors notified the state Attorney General's Office of the possible misdemeanor committed by Stapleton, a Republican. On Wednesday, the Attorney General's Office said it had referred the matter to the Helena Police Department for investigation and requested any findings be presented to prosecutor for review.
Deputy Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen told the Legislative Audit Committee that Stapleton was in eastern Montana on a previously scheduled trip and was unable to attend Wednesday's meeting. Instead she fielded questions from lawmakers about Stapleton's use of the truck, repeatedly saying the use amounted to "telework" and saying auditors mischaracterized it as commuting.
"The vehicle was used to telework," Jacobsen repeatedly answered to several questions from Democratic state Rep. Mary McNally, of Billings.
Sen. Jason Ellsworth, a Republican from Hamilton, also pressed the issue, asking why a person living in Helena would need to telecommute to a city 277 miles east.
"They're living in Helena and they're taking a state vehicle to drive to Billings and then telework? Am I getting this right?" Ellsworth asked.
Jacobsen told the committee that Stapleton worked from Billings to have better access to businesses and voters around the state who interact with the Secretary of State's Office. But an auditor said Wednesday the 27,000 miles on the vehicle about which they raised questions did not coincide with any work trips they could identify.
As an example, Auditor Shenae Stensaas said if Stapleton was making a trip to Miles City, a stay in Billings before or after would have not been questioned.
McNally questioned the claim that the vehicle was used to help Stapleton meet with people across Montana.
"The idea that this is all about constituent services … just strains credulity and that's the best I can say," McNally said.
While Jacobsen continued to dispute auditor's findings that the vehicle was misused, she told lawmakers it was returned to the state motor pool after auditors raised questions. She added that Stapleton is still working from Billings, but using a personal vehicle.
"The teleworking continues. The employee's just paying it out of his own pocket now," Jacobsen said.