Murphy taps fair housing advocate as next state comptroller

Kevin Walsh and his family with Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday. (NJTV News)

Kevin Walsh and his family with Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday. (NJTV News)

This article originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s pick for the next state comptroller is a longtime New Jersey affordable-housing advocate who hasn’t been afraid to step on the toes of some of the state’s most entrenched government officials.

Murphy announced his selection of attorney Kevin Walsh during a news conference in Newark on Thursday, saying he expects Walsh to tap that experience as he wields the authority and independence of the state’s top fiscal watchdog.

“With Kevin in the comptroller’s office, the people of New Jersey will have someone they can trust to call out the cheats,” Murphy said.

Walsh will serve a six-year term, pending confirmation by the state Senate. For the last two decades he’s worked as executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center, a group that has led efforts to enforce the state’s affordable-housing law.

His work has at times put him in direct conflict with some local officials and state lawmakers who’ve bristled at his organization’s mission of countering exclusionary zoning and other policies that have kept the poor from living in many New Jersey communities. Some criticized his selection, suggesting his organization’s ardent advocacy has run counter to the cost-saving mission of the comptroller’s office.

‘Holding government accountable’

But Walsh highlighted his experience working as a public-interest attorney in New Jersey while explaining how he will approach the job.

“I will have a different set of tools to use, but my determination and my interest in delving deep will be the same,” Walsh said. “I have a record of holding government accountable and look forward to continue doing so.”

The primary duties of the comptroller’s office are to audit government finances, examine the efficiency of government programs, and scrutinize government contracts. The comptroller is also empowered to investigate misconduct, waste and abuse at all levels of government in New Jersey, including the state’s Medicaid program.

By design, the comptroller’s six-year term does not match up with the four-year gubernatorial terms, an offset that is supposed to give the comptroller more independence than other cabinet-level officials. If confirmed, Walsh will be just the fourth person to hold the cabinet-level position since it was established in 2007 during the tenure of then-Gov. Jon Corzine.

Over that time, the office has developed a reputation of fearlessness, using its broad powers to tackle hefty fiscal issues, such as health-insurance fraud and efforts to game the public-employee pension system. For example, in 2012, then-Comptroller Matthew Boxer uncovered attorneys and other professionals serving local governments as “independent contractors” for tax purposes, but filing for pension credits as if they were municipal employees.

The comptroller’s office has also scrutinized the actions of some of the state’s most powerful political figures, including close allies of past governors. It also served a crucial oversight role following 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, tracking billions of dollars in federal disaster aid that flowed into the state.

Most recently, Philip J. Degnan — who recently left the office for a Superior Court judgeship — conducted a bruising audit of state economic-development tax incentives that has since spawned an ongoing investigation by a special task force impaneled by Murphy.

A high bar set by predecessors

Walsh, in addition to advocating for affordable housing, has also served as counsel to New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a grassroots organization that successfully lobbied to end capital punishment in New Jersey. A graduate of Catholic University and Rutgers School of Law-Camden, Walsh also clerked for former state Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein.

In going over his reasons for picking Walsh, Murphy said the comptroller must be someone who knows how government works in New Jersey, as well as how “in some cases, it doesn’t.”

Murphy said a high bar had been established by Walsh’s three predecessors — Boxer, who was appointed by Corzine, and Marc Larkins and Degnan, who were both appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie.

“This job, unlike any other in Trenton, relies on independence of thought and independence of action,” Murphy said. “It requires a thick skin to take on a fight for the right reason, and to stand solely for the people of New Jersey, regardless of which way the political winds may try to push you.

“In these aspects, Kevin Walsh has a proven record of excellence,” he said.

Walsh called his nomination a “great honor” and thanked Murphy for the opportunity.

“I recognize that I have a lot of learning to do stepping into a new role and I look forward to starting that process,” Walsh said.

In a 2013 NJ Spotight profile, Walsh described himself as a “direct person” with a passion for fairness.

“My primary interest is in closing divisions,” he said.

Asked by reporters on Thursday whether he is up to the task of conducting investigations that may be unpopular politically, or at least with powerful politicians, Walsh promised to “pursue what is right, what is true, and the consequences will be what they may.”

“I’ve throughout my career pursued what I thought was right, and at times that was unpopular, and I don’t anticipate changing that approach,” Walsh said.

Praise and criticism

Walsh will start Monday, serving in an acting capacity, Murphy said. It’s unclear when he will be put up for confirmation before the Senate, and a spokesman for the majority Democrats declined to comment on Walsh’s nomination following Thursday’s news conference.

Walsh’s former employer, Fair Share Housing, praised his efforts to boost access to affordable housing throughout the state.

“Kevin’s work has strengthened New Jersey’s fair housing laws and led to thousands of families today living in communities that otherwise would have excluded them,” the group said in a statement Thursday. “We look forward to Kevin building on his record of making New Jersey a better and fairer place to live in this new role.”

But his selection also drew criticism, including from two Republican lawmakers who have loudly criticized Walsh’s organization and its tactics, which have at times included labeling opponents of affordable housing as racists. The group also regularly files lawsuits against municipal governments to enforce the state’s fair-share housing quotas established for each town.

“While successful at fighting to litter the state with high-density housing, his bullying and name-calling against mayors, lawmakers, local officials and even me cause grave concern regarding his ability to be impartial, fair and just in this role,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen).

“Fair Share Housing has been responsible for hundreds of costly lawsuits resulting in the courts dictating what we do in our towns and making the system a mess and expensive,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union). “By appointing the head of Fair Share Housing as comptroller, Murphy shows no interest in stopping mandates that burden a town’s infrastructure, overcrowd our schools, and hike up property taxes.”

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