Watchdog role at center of controller’s duties

Former California controller Steve Westly hit on an issue close to lawmakers’ hearts when, in 2004, his office released a scathing audit of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars requested by individual legislators for their districts.

Some of the money hadn’t been spent, with no plans to do so, and millions had been shifted to other uses. The report helped bring an end to the budget season tradition of lawmakers seeking money for local projects of dubious value.

“People should know that most of the money that government gives out is spent appropriately. However, there is always that percentage ... that is just not spent in the public interest,” Westly said in an interview. “You need to be paying attention. The controller’s role is that important.”

Often viewed as the state’s chief financial officer, the controller’s office runs the state’s payroll and manages its cash flow, among other fiscal management duties.

Yet alone among other statewide constitutional officers, the controller has a major oversight role that makes it the state’s auditor-in-chief. From that perch, controllers and the hundreds of auditors at the office have broad latitude to scrutinize state and local spending, and, Westly said, occasionally “ruffle feathers.”

The three leading candidates to succeed Controller John Chiang – Democrats John A. Pérez and Betty Yee and Republican Ashley Swearengin – all promise to make that responsibility a priority and say they will do it better than their rivals.

Swearengin, the Fresno mayor, said her administration has scrutinized city programs and spending, angering all city factions at some point along the way.

“I don’t believe in gotchas, but I do believe in truth and in shining the light where it needs to be shone, and trusting that you can find solutions if you’re willing to evaluate things from a 360-degree perspective,” Swearengin, the mayor of Fresno since 2009, said in a March interview.

Pérez, who led the Assembly from 2010 until earlier this month, plans to review tax breaks for businesses to verify supporters’ claims that they create jobs. He also would build on some of the programs started under Chiang, such as posting local government workers’ wages and benefits on the controller’s website. Pérez said he supports adding employee names to the local government data.

“You want to catch something like (the city of Vernon, where you had one person classified as five different jobs. If you don’t link names to those positions, you’d never catch that,” Pérez said in a March appearance at The Sacramento Bee editorial board.

Yee, a member of the Board of Equalization, was a top deputy in the Finance Department of the Davis administration, and also worked in the Legislature. As state finances rebound, she said, the controller’s office should scrutinize how the money is being used.

“For the public’s trust and confidence, they want to know how taxpayer dollars are being spent according to law, and not subject to waste, fraud and abuse,” Yee said.

Candidates and their campaigns say they would do the job better than their opponents.

Tim Clark, a Swearengin spokesman, said Yee is part of a Board of Equalization majority that is little more than a rubber stamp. Pérez is “a master politician,” Clark said, “but is that the skill set of what is needed in the controller’s office?”

Pérez noted Fresno’s precarious fiscal condition since Swearengin has been in office. As for Yee, Pérez noted that she worked for Davis when revenue collapsed after the dot-com boom. “If the work product is what the work product is, I’m not sure I’d brag about it,” he said.

Asked about her rivals, Yee was complimentary of Swearengin, saying she has the experience of working with city auditors. Of Pérez, Yee said, “I think the oversight has been a little more limited in the Legislature.”

The controller’s office isn’t the only branch of government with an auditing or oversight role. There is the Bureau of State Audits, which conducts audits required by state law or requested by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. The Department of Finance has an audit unit, and the Legislative Analyst’s Office and Little Hoover Commission also delve into state spending.

“With a $100 billion general fund, and all kinds of special funds, there’s no shortage of opportunities for things to go awry,” said Steve D. Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies. Boilard noted that Chiang has touted his office’s alleged findings of “waste, fraud and fiscal mismanagement,” with a website display pegging the number at more than $8 billion since January 2007.

More than a fifth of the controller’s 1,500 employees are auditors. Like Chiang, though, none of the three candidates to replace him can point to a particularly strong background in scrutinizing spending.

In Fresno, Swearingen had been in office for more than a year when The Fresno Bee began asking about the use of special fund money to pay debt service on a parking garage. City officials announced the city faced an estimated $36 million imbalance.

Yee acknowledges that the Board of Equalization, where she has served since 2007, has little auditing responsibility beyond checking filers who report to the agency.

Pérez, like his predecessors as speaker, never acted on a longtime Assembly rule that calls for annual performance audits. Separately, the Assembly under his leadership went to court to oppose a lawsuit by The Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times seeking the release of information about members’ spending. A Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled that lawmakers’ individual budgets are public records and that changes to them must be disclosed.

Pérez said the performance audit rule never came up during his speakership. If it had, he said, it would have been “worthy of consideration.” As for the court fight, Pérez said the Assembly had previously followed decades of precedent by publishing such data months later. The Assembly, he said, now posts staff salary and office expenditure data much more often than the Senate.

“We go very far. You can never satisfy everybody,” Pérez said.

The controller’s oversight powers are spelled out in state law. They include allowing the office to audit any state expenditures for “correctness” and legality as well as auditing the books of former redevelopment agencies as part of the 2011 law dissolving the program.

That can bring the controller into conflict with other officials. Cities and counties sometimes dispute some of the office’s findings in the post-redevelopment audits. And Chiang angered lawmakers when he withheld their pay after they passed a budget that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed. Legislative leaders later sued Chiang and a judge ruled in their favor.

Westly’s predecessor, Democrat Kathleen Connell, frequently sparred with the Davis administration on issues ranging from the budget to the energy crisis.

Westly, who was auditor from 2002 through 2006, said the next controller needs to balance independent oversight of taxpayer money with highlighting the most egregious cases.

“You don’t want to be in the papers all the time. But you don’t want to be too quiet either,” he said. “You want to let people know if they’re not following the rules, they could end up on the front page, too.”

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