A top official at Missouri's Department of Public Safety had a potential conflict of interest when the agency awarded a $2.7 million grant to an organization where he once served on the board of directors, according to an audit by the U.S. Department of Justice.
At issue is a federal grant program for crime victim services that was previously managed by the state's public safety agency.
The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys was among organizations that applied for a share of the grants in 2016. According to the federal audit, both peer and internal reviewers determined the association's application did not meet state and federal requirements and recommended that they be denied funding.
The agency approved the grant anyway.
The Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General audit raised red flags because a top public safety official served on the group's board in 2014. The March audit was amended in May to reflect that the official didn't simultaneously serve on the board and at the Department of Public Safety when the grant was awarded. It still cited potential conflicts because of ties to the organization.
In an earlier interview with The Associated Press, Stephen Sokoloff, who was deputy public safety director at the time, said he did not serve as a board member with the prosecutors' association when the grant was awarded, as the audit initially said. He didn't respond to requests for comment after the amended audit was released. Instead, Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys President Amy Fite in a Wednesday statement said "there was no conflict of interest concerning this grant."
"The revised OIG report makes an assertion of a 'potential' conflict that is unsupported by the facts," she said. Sokoloff, a former prosecuting attorney for Dunklin County in Missouri's Bootheel, was president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys in 2004. He took a job as general counsel for the association in February 2017, shortly after the former public safety director announced his retirement on the heels of a party change in the governor's office when Republican Gov. Eric Greitens took office.
The grant awarded to the association came from federal Victims of Crime Act money, which is given to states that then dole some of it out to organizations that help victims of rape and other crime. The $2.7 million grant was the largest awarded by the Missouri Department of Public Safety in federal fiscal year 2017, when that agency still supervised the program. Missouri lawmakers in 2017 switched the program over to the Department of Social Services.
The federal audit recommended the Public Safety Department craft a formal conflict-of-interest policy. In response, the agency, which now is under new leadership, banned staff from participating in federal grant programs if "the employee, officer or agent, any member of his or her immediate family, his or her partner, or an organization which employs or is about to employ any of those individuals, has a financial or other interest in or a tangible personal benefit from a firm considered for a contract."
The Department of Social Services has a similar policy. Director Steve Corsi in a letter responding to the audit wrote the agency "does not and will not utilize any individual who has an affiliation with an applicant for VOCA funding to evaluate the application and/or make recommendations or decisions on awards of funding."