Brown Turns Blind Eye To Waste

DEC. 23, 2010

I know you’re busy and all setting up a new administration and picking curtains for your hip, new Midtown digs, but I just wanted to drop you a brief note saying Thanks for getting rid of Laura Chick and her staff of auditors at the Office of The Inspector General. Though the office was tiny – just 11 personnel, eight of them auditors – it dwarfed our little outfit. They were tough competition, and it’s nice to see them gone.

Yes, the IG’s auditors uncovered a lot of waste and fraud in its 20 months looking at how state agencies were spending $50 billion in federal stimulus dollars. But you and I know she had some pretty unique ideas about how state bureaucrats were supposed to act.

“There is a misperception in government that unearthing problems is equivalent to ‘throwing someone under the bus,’” Chick wrote in her Dec. 20 farewell letter to you and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who first appointed her to the job. “I believe that it is government’s duty to find problems, put forward solutions and do so in plain view. I believe the taxpayers will support and rally around this approach.”

Now we’re the first to agree that “unearthing problems” is necessary and vital to keeping government from just throwing the taxpayers’ money away, but why bring that inside the Capitol? I mean, there are plenty of journalists out there willing to investigate fraudulent spending or wasteful redundancies… OK, maybe not plenty of journalists.

Yes, newspapers have trimmed their Sacramento bureaus by half over the last decade. And while some non-profit journalism centers like CalWatchdog and the Berkeley-based California Watch have sprouted up, they’re still tiny when compared to the losses incurred by newspapers. Still, as you pointed out, does state government really need four auditing agencies?

“If he feels these services are being duplicated elsewhere, then these are the kinds of cuts he needs to make,” Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton, told me when I asked his opinion on the elimination of the IG’s office. Norby’s a pretty vocal critic of all sorts of spending — wasteful and otherwise — and his opinion carries significant weight. He also dared speak a truth that most people in power don’t like to acknowledge.

“You saw the story on the city of Bell auditors?” Norby asked me. “They gave the city a clean bill of health. Sometimes auditors are just for show.”

It’s a valid argument — one you could have made, but didn’t. In any case, Chick seemed to anticipate it in her letter to you.

“Despite the fact that the state employs many hundreds of auditors, investigators, monitors, etc. the quality of oversight is not nearly as effective as it should be,” Chick told you. “The answer is not necessarily about hiring more auditors, it’s about using existing resources in a more thoughtful and focused way.”

Actually, that’s a really good point. And here’s where I have to quibble with something else you said in defense of eliminating the IG’s office. “Ending this redundancy will save the state’s General Fund over $700,000 in fiscal year 2010-11,” was how your transition office put it in an official statement.

In a state with a budget that perpetually spends $20 billion more than it takes in, $700,000 is nearly invisible. It’s just a symbol. Now I know you adore symbols, and have long expressed your political goals in terms of symbolic offerings and such, but anything smaller than a billion dollars just doesn’t register anymore with the electorate. Right now, it just looks like you thought Chick’s office was making a real nuisance of herself making sure federal stimulus dollars were being spent properly.

Your argument is also a total misreading of the value of investigating corruption and ineptitude. Proper oversight, like advertising, ultimately pays for itself. And yes, Chick pointed this out to you.

“When management knows that their organization or operation can be easily viewed by anyone and everyone, there is a tendency to do things smarter and better,” she wrote. “If problems or weaknesses are revealed, there is an impetus to do something to address those problems.”

That’s the tack you should have taken. That the whole way state government goes around investigating itself is necessary, but flawed. Again, Chick said as much in her letter: “In addition, when audits do see the light of day, their recommendations are often ignored, which is why we see repeat findings year after year in the Bureau of State Audits’ (BSA) single audit and the same problems continually highlighted in reviews done inside departments.”

Here was your opportunity to express how you’re going to breathe new life into government’s ability to make sure it’s working honestly and efficiently. No more expensive audits that go right onto a shelf, never to be opened again.

Instead, you elected to just shut down an effective auditing agency and toss its business to people like us. I still think you missed a great opportunity, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank you for the business.

-Anthony Pignataro

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