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State auditor's race centers around CPA issue

November 02, 1998
By: Pervaiz Shallwani
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - On the 1974 campaign trail for state auditor, Kansas City Democrat George Lehr ran on a platform requiring the person who holds the position be a certified public accountant. "It makes as much sense for a CPA to be a state auditor as it does for an attorney to be state attorney general," Lehr told Missouri voters 24 years ago.

Then incumbent John Ashcroft, a lawyer, had been performing the job with few complaints. Lehr told voters as a CPA who does audits and deals with number crunching on a regular basis, he would be able to do a better job.

In a close election, Lehr defeated Ashcroft, starting a chain of CPAs holding the office of state auditor.

As the 1998 race nears its final weeks, fellow Kansas City Democrat Claire McCaskill is trying to reverse the precedent.

McCaskill, a state representative for six years in the 1980s, has more name recognition than her opponent, Deputy Auditor Charles Pierce. McCaskill has raised more money than he has, too. But one thing she does not have, is her CPA.

And on that issue, Pierce is trying to win the race for state auditor.

"You want somebody who understands the standards," said Pierce, who has been an employee in the state auditor's office for more than 15 years.

"The best comparison I can make is the attorney general's office. I can run for the office on the same issue. I can manage the office, but I am not an attorney and would not know how to file lawsuits. I would have to rely on others to help me do the job."

Pierce also pointed to his experience as an advantage.

"My experience has been a big factor," he said. "I have worked on 600 audit reports. I started as a staff auditor and have worked my way up."

McCaskill, a prosecuting attorney in Jackson County, is trying to show voters the state auditor's position is more of an administrative position, not requiring someone with a CPA to hold the job.

"The majority of the auditors in the country are not CPAs," McCaskill said. "The state auditor doesn't do the audits."

McCaskill outlined three areas where she feels the position should change. "The first is to manage the office," she said. "As prosecuting attorney, I have had to deal with a staff and a budget that is bigger than the state auditor's."

The second area McCaskill said was audit selection. She said the auditor's office has to be more selective in determining "where to go to do the audits." She criticized the state auditor's office for wasting money conducting too many audits.

"For every dime being stolen in government, $10 is being spent," she said. The third area McCaskill said, is conducting audit follow-ups, making sure the government is doing its job.

While a lawyer, McCaskill says she has taken a special interest in finance law. As state representative for three terms, she served on the state budget, insurance and judiciary committees.

But as the two go into the final weeks before the election, one of the big strategies becomes raising more money to run an effective television ad campaign.

Currently, McCaskill has taken in over $800,000 in campaign contributions, while Pierce has taken in a little over $300,000. The large gap between the two led Pierce to announce two weeks ago that he is sidestepping the $1,075 agreed-upon-limit put on individual campaign contributions. Pierce told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he had no choice, because he is being outdrawn and outspent by McCaskill.

A case questioning the limits passed by Missouri voters is under appeal, so currently there is no limit.

"I didn't agree to anything but to follow the law," Pierce said. "We didn't feel the need to make an artificial barriers. People have come to me and said they wanted to give more money and I don't see a reason shy they can't."

McCaskill said she doesn't plan to venture away from her promise, but said Pierce's actions have put a strain on her campaign.