Clay County collector in hot water after e-mail sent from personal account

CLAY COUNTY, Mo. - Watching taxpayer money is part of Clay County Auditor Shiela Ernzen's job.

"Just on a weekly basis, I review the expenditures," she said.

But an e-mail attached to a $10,000 county check caught her eye.

"The office holder was trying to circumvent the Sunshine Law," Ernzen said.

Clay County Collector Lydia McEvoy sent it to her staff in September from her personal e-mail account. She asked for a $10,000 check to pay her attorney, well over the $1,000 billed because she said she was sure "we'll burn through that much money pretty quickly."

"You don't pay in advance with public money," Ernzen said.

McEvoy then asked staff to only use her personal e-mail when discussing the requesting because she said she wanted "to keep these communications personal and protected from the Sunshine Law."

To Ernzen, that was a red flag.

"We're dealing with the public's money and the public has a right to know," she said.

We asked McEvoy if she was trying to keep how the public money would be spent private.

"Absolutely not," she said.

McEvoy hired the attorney to challenge the proposed Clay County constitution on the November ballot.

"It was the November 5th timing of anything that may affect my office while I was sending out tax bills," she said.

So why not use one of the several county attorneys on staff? It's because the chief counsel helped write the proposed constitution.

"So if a court had to actually get involved and interpret the document, that would kind of be a conflict of interest for him," McEvoy said.

That's the same reason county officials tell 41 Action News the county commissioners also went with outside attorneys. They spent $35,000 of taxpayer money suing to get the constitution off the ballot.

Voters rejected it, but if it had passed it would have changed many county offices.

"That wasn't the reason I got legal counsel. It wasn't to protect the existence of my office as it is, it was to protect the taxpayers at that critical time," she said.

McEvoy said she thought the e-mail was protected by attorney-client privilege. She wanted to make open records requests easier by keeping it separate.

"I still consider it public money, I still consider taxpayers to have a right to ask about it," McEvoy said.

"I think transparency is very important. It's public money," Ernzen said.

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