When the Helena Police Department cited the statute of limitations in declining to bring charges against Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton for misuse of a state-owned vehicle, Helena reporter Amy Hanson dug deeper, uncovering that the misuse went on for a long time after the scope of the investigation — and within the legal time limit to pursue charges.

A legislative audit had found that Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, a Republican candidate for the state's only U.S. House seat, was using a state-owned pickup truck as a personal vehicle. Stapleton racked up tens of thousands of miles as he commuted from his Helena office to his Billings home 240 miles away most weekends, in violation of state vehicle use policy, a legislative audit found.

 The legislative auditor’s office turned the findings over to the state attorney general, which passed it on to the Helena Police Department to investigate for possible charges. The city attorney declined to prosecute Stapleton, saying the alleged abuse happened over a year ago, past the time limit in which charges can be filed. 

 Enter AP Helena reporter Amy Beth Hanson. Hanson, in reading the report, realized that the police hadn’t investigated anything beyond the scope of the audit — and Stapleton continued to lease the truck for nine more months.

 After multiple public-records requests to state transportation officials, legislative auditors and Stapleton’s office, Hanson built a spreadsheet that showed when the truck was filled with gas, how much mileage was on the truck and what official events he attended at that time.

Hanson built a spreadsheet that showed when the truck was filled with gas, how much mileage was on the truck and what official events Stapleton attended at that time.

She found that he traveled tens of thousands of miles more than what had been previously reported, including many weekends, holidays and times when he had no official events on his calendar. One weekend, he put more than 1,000 miles on the truck, and over one July 4 holiday, he added 640 miles.

 What’s more she found that the misuse continued from July 2018 until he turned in the vehicle in March, well within the statute of limitations.

Hanson repeatedly sought interviews with Stapleton in person and by phone, and even presented her information to his representatives so that he could address it directly. He declined to be interviewed and did not respond to the findings.

Hanson’s APNewsBreak was featured on the front page of every Montana daily paper and generated about 2,000 social media interactions. One non-AP news organization with television stations across the state cited Hanson's reporting throughout its own story. The Billings Gazette, the state’s largest newspaper, published an editorial Tuesday citing AP’s reporting in calling for Stapleton to reimburse the money and for state legislators to take action to hold him accountable when the committee that oversees Stapleton’s office meets later this month. Neither the chairwoman of the committee or the spokesman for Attorney General Tim Fox returned calls to comment.

Stapleton gave a brief interview to MTN News Monday, saying that his use of the state-owned truck “was always meant to enhance the results of the Office of the Secretary of State.”

For determined reporting that resulted in a textbook example of accountability journalism, Amy Hanson wins this week’s Best of the States award.