O’FALLON, Mo. (AP) — State auditors have found more than $115,000 in fraudulent payments and purchases made by former leaders of a tiny Missouri town that drew widespread attention last year when two mysterious fires burned records that were being sought for the audit.
State Auditor Nicole Galloway said Wednesday that the audit of Parma, a town of about 700 people in Missouri’s Bootheel, the southeastern-most part of the state, looked at the four-year period in which Tyus Byrd served as mayor. Byrd lost her bid for reelection to Rufus Williamson Jr., 115-56, in April 2019.
The night that Williamson was sworn in, some city records and computers were destroyed in fires at City Hall and at Byrd’s home. Both fires were deemed suspicious and are still under investigation.
Galloway, a Democrat who is running for governor, said in a news release that the audit found “payroll overpayments and/or improper payments to the mayor, the city clerk, and to city officials and others who were related to the mayor or the city clerk.” The audit also found that Byrd and former City Clerk Helen Frye made improper purchases using prepaid debit cards and the city’s Walmart credit card for things such as gift cards, appliances, furniture and electronic equipment.
“Our audit discovered that for almost the entire time the former mayor and former city clerk were in office, there was a pattern of blatant corruption and cover-up that cost the citizens of Parma more than $115,000,” Galloway said. “This was a betrayal of the public trust that requires accountability, and my office will continue our partnership with law enforcement to pursue justice for local taxpayers.”
The audit said the former mayor and clerk also falsified meeting minutes and financial reports to hide the fraud.
The state auditor does not have policing power, but Galloway said her office’s Public Corruption and Fraud Division has worked for months with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. No criminal charges have been filed. Capt. John Hotz of the Missouri State Highway Patrol confirmed that an investigation was ongoing. A spokeswoman for the FBI declined comment.
Byrd and Frye don’t have listed phone numbers. Williamson, who is not accused of wrongdoing, didn’t immediately reply to a phone message seeking comment.
The audit was launched after a 2018 complaint about city operations and finances to Galloway’s whistleblower hotline. Galloway’s office requested records from Byrd and received some, but not all, she said.
The audit also uncovered more than $7,000 in improperly recorded utility payments and adjustments to utility bills on the accounts of the mayor, water supervisor, an alderman who is the mayor’s father, an alderwoman, and a church, Galloway’s office said.
Parma is about 175 miles (282 kilometers) south of St. Louis and sits in one of the poorest areas of Missouri. Census data shows that Parma’s median household income was $27,220 in 2016, compared to the Missouri median of $51,749.