Director of the Missouri Division of Tourism Ward Franz, of West Plains, resigned Friday following an investigation into his alleged use of taxpayer-funded travel expenses and improper acceptance of gifts.
The office of Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway wrote the State Department of Economic Development, which oversees the tourism division, on Oct. 25. The letter outlined allegations from a whistleblower complaint.
Addressed to department Director Rob Dixon, the document said the auditor’s office had begun a preliminary investigation to determine whether the complaint was credible.
The Department of Economic Development confirmed both the auditor’s investigation and Franz’s resignation.
“On Oct. 25, the Department of Economic Development was notified of a complaint by a whistleblower related to allegations of inappropriate expenses incurred by the director of tourism,” said department spokesperson Maggie Kost.
“Immediately the department launched an internal investigation to determine the validity of the claims,” she continued. “Fortunately, many of the accusations proved to be unfounded; however, there were concerns uncovered about behavior not meeting the standards set forth by Gov. Parson’s Executive Order 18-10 and related policies. As a result, Director Franz resigned effective Friday, Nov. 1.”
The executive order referenced was issued by Gov. Mike Parson in January 2017 and outlines a code of conduct for state employees representing the executive branch. Among the governor’s expectations, such state employees shall not benefit from contractual arrangements with the state if they do not pertain to official duties.
According to the complaint, an unnamed whistleblower told the auditor’s office that Franz and a guest arrived May 30 at a conference in Anaheim, Calif., when the conference began on June 3. The complaint then alleged that, on June 3, Franz left the conference to attend an event in Missouri.
Earlier in the year, Franz allegedly attended a March 15 conference in Maryland Heights and “continued to stay in St. Louis for the remainder of the weekend at the Chase Park Plaza, at Division of Tourism’s expense,” according to the whistleblower report.
The whistleblower also alleged Franz accepted two baseball tickets “valued at over $1,000” in June.
“In both cases, the tickets were alleged to have been requested by the director to be purchased for him by an active vendor of the Division of Tourism,” the complaint said. “One game was allegedly attended by Director Franz and a guest at Yankee Stadium in New York City, the other game was allegedly attended by Director Franz and a guest at Fenway Park in Boston.”
Mary Johnson, the auditor’s chief of investigations, has asked for Franz’s unedited work calendar, copies of airfare and hotel invoices, copies of state credit card invoices and other related information. She requested the documents to be delivered by this Friday.
State Auditor’s Office press secretary Steph Deidrick confirmed the auditor’s investigation is ongoing.
As of press time, Franz had not yet responded to Quill attempts to contact him.
Following Franz’s resignation, The Missouri Tourism Commission named Luke Holtschneider, of Jefferson City, interim director for the Missouri Division of Tourism.
Holtschneider will oversee operations of the division while the commission launches a search for a new director to succeed Franz.
“We would like to thank Ward for his many years of public service to the State of Missouri,” said Commission Chair Scott Hovis. “We look forward to working with Luke in the interim and to finding a new director to lead our dedicated staff as they continue building on their past achievements.”
Prior to being name Director of Tourism, Franz served as chief of staff to Parson in his office as lieutenant governor.
From 2012 to 2017, Franz was director of the Ozarks Medical Center Foundation in West Plains. He also served as a member of the Missouri House of Representatives from 2004 to 2012, representing District 151, which includes the West Plains area.