corey stapleton secretary of state mt

Office of Corey Stapleton

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's deputy secretary of state told a legislative committee Wednesday that Secretary of State Corey Stapleton used a state vehicle to travel to his family home in Billings to "telework" and legislative auditors were incorrect in saying he was commuting — which would violate state law.

The Legislative Audit Committee held a hearing Wednesday on the audit, which found Stapleton put nearly 28,000 miles (45,000 kilometers) on a state-owned pickup truck to commute to Billings, with most of the travel coinciding with weekends. The travel cost taxpayers over $5,700.

Christi Jacobsen repeatedly told the committee "the vehicle was used for teleworking."

"So again," Republican Sen. Jason Ellsworth said in trying to draw out an explanation, "they're living in Helena, then they're taking a state vehicle to drive to Billings to then telework?"

"Correct," Jacobsen responded.

Stapleton did not attend Wednesday's hearing. Jacobsen said he was in eastern Montana on previously scheduled business.

Montana law allows state employees to use state vehicles to commute to worksites if they are emergency responders. It disallows commutes of more than 30 miles (48.28 kilometers) without authorization. Auditors noted the Department of Administration has determined there is no reason to justify a commute of over 30 miles in a state-owned vehicle.

The audit said Stapleton made trips of over 200 miles (322 kilometers) on 69 days from Jan 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018. The audit does not account for any travel that occurred from July 2018 to April 2019 when auditors questioned the use of the vehicle and it was returned to the state motor pool.

In response to the audit, the secretary's office said it agreed that "routine private-personal use of state vehicles is not permitted."

Jacobsen said Wednesday that Stapleton's travel involved visiting elections clerks and business owners who register their corporations with the state.

Legislative Audit staffer Shenae Stensaas said auditors took Stapleton's calendar into consideration and did not count business trips, such as Stapleton's "Things That Matter" tour, in the questioned travel.

"The idea that this is all about constituent services, particularly with the work the auditor did, just strains credulity is the best I can say," Democratic Sen. Mary McNally said.

Auditors forwarded information about the apparent misuse of the vehicle to the attorney general. The Division of Criminal Investigation asked the Helena Police Department to investigate on June 19.

Helena Police Chief Steve Hagen did not immediately return a call Wednesday seeking to learn if police are investigating. Improper use of a state vehicle is a misdemeanor.

This is not the first time Stapleton has run afoul of rules regarding personal use of public resources. He was fined $4,000 in February for using state resources, including email accounts, to announce he was seeking the Republican nomination for governor. Earlier this month he withdrew from the crowded governor's race to run for the state's lone U.S. House seat.

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This story has been changed to correct Jacobsen's title and the spelling of her last name

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