This article originally appeared on PA Post.
The Pennsylvania Auditor General completes well over 3,000 audits of publicly funded agencies each year, reviewing the work of state agencies and prisons, down to school boards and volunteer firefighter relief associations. Primarily, the aim is to uncover waste, fraud, and abuse in the spending of taxpayer money, but the auditor general also has investigated issues like untested rape kits and the Wolf administration’s business waiver process during COVID-19. The auditor general has wide latitude to investigate issues of interest.
Since 2013, Democrat Eugene DePasquale has held the office, but he is term limited and running for the U.S. House of Representatives, creating a vacancy that six Democrats and one Republican are on the ballot seeking to fill.
DePasquale made a name for himself statewide, conducting high-profile audits, doing push-ups in editorial board conference rooms, and issuing reports on issues like gun safety and climate change. His high profile has irked the Republican-controlled legislature, where lawmakers pushed to cut the office’s budget by 10 percent in 2019.
“It was just obvious he spends a lot of time trying to get his name in the public to make a name for himself for future political considerations,” state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre, Huntingdon, Juniata, Mifflin) told PennLive last summer. “If he has that much extra time on his hands, then his department could use less resources.”
Both Bob Casey, Sr. and Bob Casey, Jr. held the post before serving as governor and U.S. senator respectively, and both Donald Bailey and Jack Wagner unsuccessfully sought the governorship after their terms as auditor general. Barbara Hafer, the only Republican to hold the office since 1960, served as State Treasurer, switched party affiliations to become a Democrat, and pled guilty to felony charges stemming from a federal corruption investigation in the years after her tenure as Auditor General.
Dr. Daniel Mallinson, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Penn State Harrisburg, said that because the office is on the ballot the same year as the U.S. presidency and, historically, has not been particularly high-profile, most voters take partisan cues as the most important factor when weighing who to vote for in the post.
“I think people generally understand what an auditor does and have this general idea that [the Auditor General] has some evaluative functions of the job of government,” said Mallinson.
In terms of evaluating candidates, Mallinson said that a message about making government more efficient and transparent is common in many offices besides auditor general, which makes it hard for that message alone to resonate for candidates seeking the office. As such, Mallinson said that name identification will likely be the most important factor for Democratic Party voters in the primary.
With less than a week to go, he said he’s not sure that any of the candidates in the race have much of a statewide brand and doubts the race has a clear frontrunner. He said he is somewhat surprised that the race did not attract higher-profile candidates on either side of the aisle and wonders whether that is because DePasquale elevated himself more than the office.
“Even though he was able to elevate himself, I guess I question whether it elevated the office in terms of attracting people to the office,” said Mallinson. “I think he used the office well to elevate his name.”
Whoever is the next auditor general will have no shortage of potential issues to investigate. Mallinson pointed to the business waiver program, the allocation of federal CARES Act funds, nursing home safety, and the shutdown process as potential subjects the next auditor general could choose to explore.
“The state auditor is really at the bullseye of accountability over COVID-19 funds,” said R. Kinney Poynter, executive director of the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers & Treasurers.
Poynter said that while all auditors general have responsibilities to scrutinize financial statements and the spending of federal funds, it is performance audits — assessing whether a public program is successful — where the auditor general has latitude to make his or her mark.
“Is the program efficient and effective? Is the program achieving the results that the legislature intended when it created that particular program? In other words, are they using their resources in the most efficient and effective manner? And then are the programs achieving what they intended?” Poynter said are among the questions an auditor might ask when auditing a government program.
DePasquale has already begun an audit of the business waiver program, and candidates reached by PA Post pointed to the unemployment compensation system and general pandemic preparedness as places for an auditor general to investigate.
Poynter said that elected state auditors function as a citizen’s watchdog over their government.
“This person’s elected by the citizens, and he or she owes them the highest level of accountability.”
PA Post invited all seven of the candidates on the ballot next Tuesday to tell us how they see the role of the Auditor General with respect to Pennsylvania’s handling of COVID-19, and which aspects of the state’s response, to date, seem most important for the Auditor General to investigate. Excerpts from their responses appear below.
Philadelphia Deputy Mayor for Public Engagement | Philadelphia County
“As the fiscal watchdog of the Commonwealth, I will provide oversight of the State’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic. The risk of fraud and abuse grows when large sums are spent quickly in response to a large scale public health crisis, especially where new programs and guidelines are evolving. Establishing a data office which will use analytics to identify departments and units of government that have robust financial control systems as the initial funding distribution channels would directly help reduce and identify improper activities or weaknesses in programs that warrant scrutiny. Equally important, as a biomedical scientist, I would assess the epidemiological characteristics of similar large scale public health crises to inform my commitment of investigative resources as we track the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health. Tracking how resources were allocated to testing for the virus, issues around distribution of equipment, the availability of the personal protective equipment, infection control at nursing homes, student loan relief efforts, unemployment benefits, paycheck protection programs, and the use of funds by various agencies are all important. I want to have a special emphasis on assessing why the impact was disproportionate in communities of color so that the Pandemic Preparedness Audit that I plan to design will have such built-in analytics.”
H. Scott Conklin
State Representative | Centre County
“The next Auditor General is not only going to have to face the political reality that his budget had been cut, but he’s also going to have to face the reality of the real world where he has to look at each loan given to businesses, each loan given to individuals, and those loans and the monies that have been given to the counties. All that needs taken care of. But most importantly, we have to make sure that we have a plan the next time. We cannot allow Pennsylvanians who’ve lost their jobs to go without a paycheck because they can’t contact somebody to get answers. All of this will be done under my administration.”
Vice Chair of Smithfield Township Board of Auditors | Monroe County
Worked in Auditor General’s Office for 29 years under four Auditors General | Dauphin County
“As Auditor General, while conducting post-audits of awarded COVID-19 Economic Stimulus Funds is definitely a high priority of mine, I see a definite need for the elected Auditor General to also be proactive by assisting in reducing the risk of fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement from occurring in the first place. I would do this by providing guidance to state agencies regarding the types of controls (policies and procedures) that can be put in place that would reduce such risks, which is proactive.”
Non-profit executive & consultant | Lancaster County
“As your next Auditor General, I will look at anywhere state money flowed for COVID-19, including distribution of federal funding from the CARES Act, the business waiver program, nursing home response, and how quickly unemployment payments were executed. It is absolutely essential that we understand where Pennsylvania’s response worked well for taxpayers and where it did not. I will do a comprehensive package of audits dealing with COVID-19, much in the way that Auditor General Eugene DePasquale did in his report on climate change.”
Pittsburgh City Controller | Allegheny County
“There is clearly a very significant role for the Auditor General with respect to Covid-19. This pandemic has created a crisis and one thing I know from my experience as the Pittsburgh City Controller is that crisis creates opportunity for fraud and waste. … There are a few areas that I believe warrant investigation. The communication and response around nursing homes and the health department seems ripe for review. It appears, throughout the pandemic, we were not focused on our most vulnerable and likely victims of this virus. The inability to deliver multilingual cautionary information to work locations in a timely manner needs to be reviewed. The DCED Small Business Loan program appears patently unfair in its approval and distribution and should be audited. A more thorough examination of business enterprises in terms of what could stay in operation and when others could open for operation seems warranted.”
Dauphin County Controller | Dauphin County