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Schweich Will Check Whether Municipal Courts Are Collecting Too Much In Fines

photo of Thomas Schweich
Provided by the auditor's office

Missouri state Auditor Tom Schweich plans to unveil in a few weeks a new initiative to target municipal courts that he believes may be violating state law.

Schweich told members of the St. Louis Chamber at a luncheon Tuesday that his office soon will  “start picking five of the most suspect courts in the state each year and checking to see if they are complying with this new law -- whether they are mistreating any person of a different race or religion and also whether they are refunding money to the state or illegally keeping money for themselves."

The law in question is known as the “Macks Creek law,’’ referring to a town in Camden County, Mo., that once collected three-quarters of its income from traffic tickets levied in a “speed trap’’ set up along a short stretch of U.S. 54. 

Originally passed almost 20 years ago, the law restricts how much income a town can collect from speeding violations and related fees levied by its local courts. The latest revision, in place since last year, limits such income to 30 percent. Any excess is to be turned over to the state.

The issue has been resurrected by the unrest in Ferguson and neighboring municipalities in north St. Louis County.  Schweich said he suspects some of those local courts are violating the state law.

Schweich said in an interview that he’s not ready to identify which local courts will be targeted first, but he hinted that Ferguson’s court may be among them.

Schweich told the chamber that his office can probe local court systems without first being petitioned by local residents. His office can’t audit the city of Ferguson, he said, without petitions signed by at least 982 of the community’s registered voters.

Schweich supports effort to curb governor's powers

In any case, the initiative is among several activities that Schweich expects will consume his time over the coming weeks, despite his bid for re-election on Nov. 4.

Schweich has no Democratic opponent, a fact that essentially frees him up to focus on other candidates and other issues on the ballot.  And he plans to do so.

Among other things, Schweich is supporting proposed Constitutional Amendment 10, which would curb the governor’s powers to withhold spending approved by the General Assembly. 

It also would bar a governor from making spending proposals that the General Assembly hasn’t approved, such as Gov. Jay Nixon’s proposed budget this year that included federal money to expand the state’s Medicaid program, as sought by the federal Affordable Care Act.

Schweich unsuccessfully went to court a couple years ago to challenge Nixon’s withholding power because the governor withheld some state spending to come up with money to pay costs incurred by the deadly tornado that hit Joplin in 2011.

Schweich’s suit was tossed out “on technical grounds,’’ as he put it.  (Nixon claims the state Supreme Court's decision was more substantive.)

But Schweich still maintains that Nixon has abused his power to withhold state spending until it’s determined that the state has the income to pay for the programs.

Under Amendment 10, the General Assembly could override the governor’s specific “withholds,” although he would still be required to cut state spending in some fashion to balance the state budget by the end of the fiscal year. During the recent veto session, legislators voted to override 47 of the governor’s line-item vetoes in the state budget; Nixon then shifted to “withhold’’ most of those allocations.

Schweich believes the amendment is needed to curb the governor’s powers, when it comes to state spending, even though he might be seeking the office in 2016.

Schweich remains mum about 2016, while Danforth is not

Schweich told the chamber that he won’t comment until after the November election about his 2016 plans, saying it’s bad form – and politically dangerous – to talk about a future election when one has yet to get through the next one.

But his mentor, retired Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., isn’t so reluctant. Danforth introduced Schweich at the chamber event, detailing the auditor’s background – which included several stints working for Danforth.

A lawyer, Schweich was Danforth’s chief of staff when the retired senator headed up the probe into the 1993 federal actions during  the standoff in Waco, Tex., with a religious group known as the Branch Davidians. The standoff culminated in 76 deaths.

After Schweich’s address Tuesday, Danforth said without a doubt he’ll support the auditor for governor.  Danforth said he believes Schweich is a stronger Republican candidate than former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, who already has announced.

So far, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is the only Democrat who has announced plans to run for governor in 2016. Nixon cannot seek re-election because of term limits.

Schweich said he believes he has run his office in a nonpartisan manner. Among other things, he noted that his office has given its highest audit rating to state Treasurer Clint Zweifel, a Democrat. Schweich told the chamber that he doesn’t agree with all of Zweifel’s policies, but that the audit determined Zweifel’s office was well run.

Although Schweich has no Democratic opponent this fall, he still plans to run campaign ads.  One soon-to-air TV spot, he said, will highlight the fact that his office’s audits have uncovered more than 30 cases of embezzlement by local public officials.

All of those cases, he quipped, turned up a common practice among officials who steal public money. Because of their fear of discovery, Schweich explained, “embezzlers never take a vacation.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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