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APNewsBreak: Records show Montana official’s vehicle misuse

FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2018 file photo, Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton testifies before an interim legislative committee in Helena, Mont. Stapleton put tens of thousands of miles on a state-owned pickup truck and used it extensively during weekends and holidays in addition to other travel that legislative auditors said violated state policy, an Associated Press review of government documents found. Stapleton's office did not respond to requests for comment on his travel outside of official events and his "teleworking" at his home in Billings.
FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2018 file photo, Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton testifies before an interim legislative committee in Helena, Mont. Stapleton put tens of thousands of miles on a state-owned pickup truck and used it extensively during weekends and holidays in addition to other travel that legislative auditors said violated state policy, an Associated Press review of government documents found. Stapleton's office did not respond to requests for comment on his travel outside of official events and his "teleworking" at his home in Billings. Thom Bridge

Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton put tens of thousands of miles on a state-owned pickup truck and used it extensively during weekends and holidays in addition to other travel that legislative auditors said violated state policy, an Associated Press review has found.

A state audit of the secretary of state's office covering two fiscal years ending in June 2018 found Stapleton's travel to his home in Billings violated policy. After auditors questioned the use, Stapleton returned the vehicle to the motor pool in March 2019.

An AP examination of Stapleton's use of the truck between July 2018 and March 2019 found the first-term Republican, who is running for Montana's U.S. House seat, improperly used the truck to regularly travel from Helena to his home in Billings.

Over the entire lease, he also traveled thousands of miles in the 2015 GMC Sierra during weekends and holiday periods when he had no official events scheduled, according to the AP review of government documents obtained through public-records requests.

Stapleton declined multiple requests for interviews by the AP. His office manager and spokeswoman, Susan Ames, said Stapleton traveled to fulfill his job responsibilities and a long-term vehicle lease was the most efficient and least costly way of doing so.

"Three government agencies have investigated and found no wrongdoing by anyone in the agency, including the secretary," Ames said. She did not respond to an email asking which agencies found no wrongdoing.

Auditors found nearly half of Stapleton's travel over the first 18 months of the lease violated a policy that says state-owned vehicles can be used only for commuting distances of less than 30 miles (48 kilometers) and only if the employee is on call for a quick response to an emergency that threatens life or property. The audit could not conclude how the vehicle was used 25% of the time.

The audit, completed earlier this year, found Stapleton improperly used the pickup truck to commute from Helena to Billings, where he said he "teleworked" part time, from January 2017 through June 2018. He had driven the truck just over 45,000 miles (72,417 kilometers) at that point.

The audit findings were turned over to the Department of Justice, which forwarded them to Helena police in June.

Stapleton told auditors and Helena police that he was committed to efficiently serving and conducting regular outreach to the 220,000 businesses, 56 county election offices and 700,000 registered voters in Montana, and did so by holding some office hours at his residence in Billings.

Helena police Officer Jayson Zander, who led the investigation, said Stapleton told him that while he doesn't need to respond to emergencies, his job requires him to be available at all times.

"He explained that if there was a call in Glendive for a report of election fraud, he would have to respond and could not tell them that they would have to wait until Monday," Zander wrote in his findings.

Stapleton also acknowledged using the pickup to travel to medical appointments in Bozeman, Zander said in his report. It is a violation of government policy to use a state vehicle for personal travel.

Helena's city attorney, Thomas Jodoin, declined to file charges. He said in July that the one-year statute of limitations for filing a misdemeanor charge had expired.

But public records show Stapleton continued to use the pickup from July 2018 through March 2019 to travel to Billings as well as other events around the state, tallying another 25,000 miles (40,232 kilometers), before the pickup was returned to the motor pool.

That additional travel was not reviewed by auditors or Helena police.

Helena police investigated "and my office reviewed the allegations that were presented to us," Jodoin said. "No allegations of unlawful use of a state vehicle from July 1, 2018, to when the vehicle was returned to the state motor pool were provided to HPD or my office."

Questions about Stapleton's travel were first raised in October 2018, when his office told the state budget office he would be requesting a replacement vehicle "due to high mileage," the governor's office said.

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