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Nixon names temporary auditor; state GOP chairman seeks to quell party unrest

Bill Greenblatt, UPI
Gov. Jay Nixon

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has named longtime aide John Watson as the state’s interim state auditor, until the governor can appoint a permanent replacement to state Auditor Tom Schweich, who committed suicide on Thursday.

Nixon said in a statement Friday that he was putting Watson temporarily in charge of the auditor’s office in order to comply with the state constitution’s requirement that the governor “immediately appoint’’ a replacement should the auditor’s post become vacant.  

Nixon appointed John Watson, his former chief of staff, to serve as state auditor on an interim basis.
Credit Courtesy of Nixon's office
Nixon appointed John Watson, his former chief of staff, to serve as state auditor on an interim basis.

“The Missouri state auditor’s office provides a critical public service,” Nixon said. “John will serve as the state auditor and carry out the important functions of the office until a permanent appointment is made, in accordance with state law.”  

Said Watson in the same release:  “I have tremendous respect for the state auditor’s office, and I will carry out these duties in service to the people of Missouri. I continue to keep Tom Schweich’s family and friends in my thoughts and prayers, and join them in mourning this loss.”

Watson currently is Nixon’s senior advisor, after stepping down in December as the governor’s longtime chief of staff.

Nixon gave no indication when he will make a permanent choice. That person will serve out the rest of Schweich’s term, which continues through 2018.  Schweich had just begun his second term in January.

A memorial service for Schweich is set for 10 a.m., Tuesday morning at the Church of St. Michael and St. George, the Episcopalian church that he attended with his family. 

The governor also announced that he is cancelling plans to travel to Cuba for a trade mission next week. Instead, the governor’s wife, Georganne Nixon, will lead the Missouri contingent, which includes state Agriculture Director Richard Fordyce and representatives from several state agricultural groups.

State GOP chairman again refutes Schweich’s allegations

Meanwhile, tensions remain among some Republicans who have taken sides in a longstanding dispute between Schweich and new state Republican Party chairman John Hancock.

Some of Schweich's allies have said that the dispute contributed to the auditor’s decision to kill himself.

John Hancock at 2015 Lincoln Days
Credit Jo Mannies/St. Louuis Public Radio
John Hancock

Hancock, a political consultant and radio host, sent an email Friday to the 68 members of the state GOP committee – which had elected him as chairman last Saturday – and a handful of other party leaders.

In the email, Hancock reaffirmed his earlier denials of Schweich's accusations that Hancock was anti-Semitic and had been wrongly telling GOP donors that the auditor was Jewish.

At the time of his death, Schweich was a candidate for governor. He had been at odds with Hancock, in part, because Hancock’s firm had worked for Schweich’s GOP rival, former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway.

Hancock has acknowledged that he made a casual (and erroneous) observation last fall to a party activist that Schweich was Jewish, but Hancock has maintained that the comment was in the context of a broader discussion in which he also noted that Hanaway was Catholic.

In any case, Hancock reemphasized Friday that he had apologized to Schweich last November in what Hancock described as their last conversation on the topic.

Schweich had cancelled plans to hold a news conference Tuesday to go public with his allegations against Hancock, and his call for Hancock to step down down.

He had called two news outlets on Thursday morning to invite them to send reporters to his house that  afternoon, so that he could discuss the matter of religion. Minutes after making those calls, Schweich shot himself.

Hancock said Friday that he sent out the email to party leaders because he wanted to relate his account to all of them at once. Hancock said the note was just the latest of a series of emails that he has sent since Saturday to the GOP state committee members on a variety of topics.

“I intend to communicate frequently with them, since they’re the people I work for,’’ Hancock said.

As for the email about Schweich's accusations, Hancock added, "I didn't send it out with the intention that it become public, but I'm not disturbed that it has."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.