The State Worker

California’s watchdog needs watching, whistleblower says

Elaine Howle has led the State Auditor’s Office since 2000. Her expected reappointment to the post has been delayed by an anonymous letter that was sent to key lawmakers just before they were scheduled to consider extending her position.
Elaine Howle has led the State Auditor’s Office since 2000. Her expected reappointment to the post has been delayed by an anonymous letter that was sent to key lawmakers just before they were scheduled to consider extending her position. The Sacramento Bee file

Lawmakers have delayed the reappointment of California’s longtime chief watchdog, State Auditor Elaine Howle, amid a review prompted by an anonymous letter that raised sharp questions about her management of the department.

The letter went to key lawmakers last August just before a legislative committee was expected to consider her reappointment to a fifth term for a post she has held since 2000.

The letter accuses Howle of permitting the kind of misconduct that she regularly highlights in other state departments. For instance, it asserts that Howle allowed a handful of senior employees to accumulate excessive amounts of unused leave, and that morale has deteriorated considerably among auditors.

“I’ve never seen the office in such a mess,” wrote the anonymous author, who was identified as an auditor who had worked there for “a lot of years.”

Lawmakers have taken the report seriously even though it came from an unidentified source. In August, the former chairman of a legislative committee that oversees Howle’s office cited it when he canceled the hearing on Howle’s reappointment.

“This decision was based on my receipt of an anonymous letter that raised concerns about the management, personnel and auditing practices of the California State Auditor’s Office,”Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, wrote to other members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee at the time.

His successor, Democrat Al Muratsuchi of Torrance, has not scheduled interviews with three applicants for the job, said his spokeswoman. Howle is one of the applicants.

Rodriguez has taken steps to investigate the letter by requesting two separate reviews of its criticism, and by writing two bills that would address the shortcomings the whistleblower identified.

One Rodriguez bill would make it easier for the Legislature to recruit an auditor without seeking the recommendation of the incumbent. Usually, he said, the incumbent auditor suggests three names to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee and lawmakers work with the auditor’s suggestions.

The other would create new protections for whistleblowers in the auditor’s office by allowing them to call the Little Hoover Commission with complaints. Today, unlike other state departments, auditor employees who want to report concerns have to call their own office. The auditor then hires an independent investigator to look into the complaint.

“I have no current issue with the auditor. I keep her in high regard,” Rodriguez said. “It’s just the process” of reporting whistleblower complaints and choosing new auditors that concerns him.

The two investigations he requested came to somewhat different conclusions.

One, from the Legislature’s Special Committee on Ethics, said that Howle’s office is run well, but it also found some merit to the anonymous letter’s critique. Scott Hallabrin, the committee consultant who investigated the letter, noted declining morale, increased turnover and weak whistleblower protection policies that may deter employees from voicing their concerns.

Hallabrin also noted that five “high-level” employees had accumulated between 1,076 and 2,489 hours of unused annual leave. The state Human Resources Department asks managers to restrict leave banks to less than 640 hours because they can become expensive problems for departments when employees cash them out.

Hallabrin further suggested regular Little Hoover Commission reviews of the State Auditor’s office do not go far enough investigating the “operation of the office,” as the commission is required to do by law.

Little Hoover Commission Executive Director Carole D’Elia reviewed Hallabrin’s report and the anonymous letter. After looking into the complaints, she suggested that the Legislature consider revising the commission’s next three-year contract for reviews of the State Auditor’s Office.

The auditor’s office already is in the midst of a separate review by the State Personnel Board, she said, which could dig into the issues raised by the anonymous letter.

After reviewing the letter and Hallabrin’s findings, D’Elia did not see a cause for alarm about Howle’s office. “While there might be some minor issues with some employees or former employees, there doesn’t seem to be anything across the board,” D’Elia said.

Howle’s latest four-year term ended in December. She continues to hold her position as auditor and the job will remain hers unless the Legislature appoints someone else.

She told The Bee in a written statement, “As expected, the legislative staff report concluded that the office is well-managed, staff is well-informed, and our work meets the highest professional standards. I am proud to lead this hard-working, talented staff – we come to work every day to protect the fiscal interest of all Californians.”

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at