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HELENA, Mont. -- Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton put tens of thousands of miles on a state-leased pickup and used it extensively during weekends and holidays in addition to other travel that legislative auditors said violated state policy, an Associated Press review has found.

A state audit of the secretary of state's office covering two fiscal years ending in June 2018 found Stapleton's travel to his home in Billings violated policy. After auditors questioned the use, Stapleton returned the vehicle to the motor pool in March 2019.

An AP examination of Stapleton's use of the truck between July 2018 and March 2019 found the first-term Republican, who is running for Montana's U.S. House seat, improperly used the truck to regularly travel from Helena to his home in Billings.

The 2015 GMC Sierra had just under 45,000 miles on it at the start of the lease and he returned it to the motor pool 27 months later with an odometer reading of 112,524 miles. The lease cost his office about $19,000 based on the daily rates and mileage charges in effect during that time.

His office manager and spokeswoman, Susan Ames, said Stapleton traveled to fulfill his job responsibilities and a long-term vehicle lease was the most efficient and least costly way of doing so.

Auditors found nearly half of Stapleton's travel over the first 18 months of the lease violated a policy that says state-owned vehicles can only be used for commuting distances of less than 30 miles and only if the employee is on call for a quick response to an emergency that threatens life or property. The audit could not conclude how the vehicle was used 25% of the time.

The audit, completed earlier this year, found Stapleton improperly used the pickup to commute from Helena to Billings, where he said he "teleworked" part time, from January 2017 through June 2018.

The audit findings were turned over to the Department of Justice, which forwarded them to Helena police in June.

Helena's city attorney, Thomas Jodoin, declined to file charges. He said in July that the one-year statute of limitations for filing a misdemeanor charge had expired.

But public records show Stapleton continued to use the pickup from July 2018 through March 2019 to travel to Billings as well as other events around the state, tallying another 25,000 miles, before the pickup was returned to the motor pool.

That additional travel was not reviewed by auditors or Helena police.

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