The former chief of staff for State Auditor Kathy McGuiness testified June 23 that he first contacted state investigators in 2020 over questionable spending by the office that made him feel uncomfortable.
McGuiness faces felony theft, felony intimidation, official misconduct, conflict of interest and violation of state procurement law in a trial in Kent County Superior Court.
Thomas Van Horn, who worked as chief of staff in the auditor’s office from December 2019 to March 2021, recalled a moment in September 2020 when McGuiness told him to make a payment using his state purchase card to Christie Gross, owner of My Campaign Group, a company contracted to do policy work and special projects for the auditor’s office.
Van Horn said McGuiness stood behind him to make sure he made the payment. “It made me feel uncomfortable,” he said.
So much so, Van Horn said, he reached out to the deputy attorney general assigned to the auditor’s office to share his concern. Deputy Attorney General Patty Davis told him to contact Frank Robinson, an investigator with the Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights and Public Trust, whom Van Horn said he spoke with in November 2020.
In a phone call played to the jury, Van Horn said he was fearful of retaliation by McGuiness if she found out he made a complaint.
“I’ve definitely seen things that are not by the book,” Van Horn said. “I don’t know what position this puts me in.”
Van Horn told Robinson that he couldn’t afford to lose his job, and that he was afraid he could get fired. “She tracks my email. She tracks everyone’s in the office,” he said. “I just wanted to get this off my chest. This is not my style.”
Over the course of a few months, Van Horn said, he had particular concerns over a contract that was given to My Campaign Group, and then another to Innovate Consulting, a company also owned by Gross.
To begin with, Van Horn said, a recent college graduate was helping create the contract with MCG, instead of the auditor’s employee who had 15 years of contract experience.
“I got the feeling we’re so off track on what we’re supposed to do,” he said about the contract work. “Seems like we [were] doing a lot of special projects.”
On the stand June 22, Gross said she did policy work and special projects for the auditor’s office, but she only billed the office for work she completed. Her company is at the crux of the state’s procurement violation case against McGuiness, after it was awarded a $45,000 contract, an amount prosecutors say was intentionally set below the $50,000 threshold to avoid a bidding process.
Gross testified that McGuiness never told her to submit invoices below $5,000, an amount that would not have needed state accounting office approval. My Campaign Group invoices submitted as evidence mostly showed 20 to 30 hours worked for $150 an hour.
By September 2020, Gross began submitting invoices for Innovate Consulting, a company she said she created to provide public policy work, leaving My Campaign Group for campaign contracts.
Under Innovate, Gross’s invoices increased to up to $15,000 in some months. Eventually, Gross said, she decided to quit policy work for the auditor’s office because she no longer enjoyed it.
“It was a very toxic culture,” she said. “I had to make the decision to leave.”
Van Horn said he was terminated in connection with a relationship he had with an office employee. Under questioning by Wood, Van Horn admitted he lied under oath to the grand jury when they were considering the state’s indictment against McGuiness. Van Horn said he told the grand jury that he left the office because of disagreements between him and McGuiness, not about the relationship he had with the employee.
In court June 23, Van Horn said, when he was let go, McGuiness told him Delaware is a small state and a rumor had spread that he was romantically linked with someone working in the auditor’s office.