Editorial: State audits need to name names

Published: Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

The Bureau of State Audits has a well-deserved reputation for issuing solid reports on important topics, particularly misuse of public money.

It's certainly not known for pulling its punches.

But the auditors omit a key piece of information when they issue their regular reports detailing misfeasance and malfeasance by state employees. In otherwise detailed reports, the auditors omit the names of the miscreants, citing a provision of state law.

The origins of the exemption appear to date to 1993, when the Legislature reconstituted the Bureau of State Audits. All the legislative leaders embraced the 1993 bill. Then-Senate Republican Leader Ken Maddy and then-Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti authored the measure, with help from then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

Good-government advocates, including California Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, endorsed the final version. The bill sailed through the Legislature with bipartisan support and self-congratulations.

"The auditor general's office is one of the most cost-effective agencies in state government," Gov. Pete Wilson said as he signed the bill. "The savings that resulted from their efforts far outweigh the costs of maintaining the office."

There was, however, one small provision inserted by the Assembly that states the auditor "may issue a public report of an investigation that has substantiated an improper governmental activity, keeping confidential the identity of the employee or employees involved."

In other words, the Bureau of State Audits could report, as it did last week, that a former Employment Development Department accounting employee and two accomplices bilked the unemployment insurance system of nearly $93,000, and was sentenced to prison.

The auditors could note that a California Department of Education employee posted 4,900 comments during work hours on The Bee's website in a one-year period – and that the employee's bosses failed to discipline him.

And the auditors could note that an official in the UC president's office received $6,100 for travel, after the auditor had highlighted more than $150,000 in wasteful reimbursements to the same employee when he worked for the California State University chancellor's office.

As The Bee's Jon Ortiz noted, the auditor said state law precludes actually naming the individuals. Ortiz has found that other agencies would name the wayward civil servants, so long as someone submits a Public Records Act request.

Exactly how the 1993 provision came about is lost to history. But one can assume that lobbyists for public employee unions were involved in getting the exemption.

Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, carried Senate Bill 1336 this year to end the obscure exemption by deleting the 1993 provision. Yee's bill died in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it was opposed by union lobbyists representing firefighters, laborers, school employees, police, state engineers and the California Labor Federation.

This is a shortsighted stand for labor to take. By protecting miscreants who are the least deserving of protection, union lobbyists undermine labor's legitimate stands on far more important bills.

Yee or some other legislator ought to take up this issue in the coming year. It's in no one's interest to protect misguided privacy claims for people who steal taxpayer money, and sully the hard work of honest civil servants.

Public shame serves a purpose. Naming the names of individuals who violate the public trust would deter others from doing the same.

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