Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Watchdog muzzled? DOT auditor told not to look for waste, fraud, abuse

ASSOCIATED PRESS

LET’S SEE IF I’ve got this straight: The state Transportation Commission tells its internal auditor to stop looking for waste, fraud and abuse because his audits are “too critical” (his words).

Instead, he is ordered to “help management” by doing the audits that the agency wants him to do — even though the General Assembly went out of its way to wall him off from the agency’s management, so he could serve as a watchdog over an agency legislators were extremely reluctant to give the governor any control over.

So now when whistleblowers tell him where $10 million is being wasted, he tells them, “I’m not allowed to investigate things like that any more.”

The commission also instructs him to get its approval of audits before he follows the state law that requires him to send them to state legislators.

And there are people who still think this whole legislatively appointed commission thing is working out?

Really?

It’s old news that our Legislature’s part-time, unaccountable, parochial-by-design commission dreams up all sorts of ridiculous ways to squander money on projects we don’t need while our roads and bridges deteriorate. Now it turns out the commission that has the power to thwart pretty much anything the governor’s transportation secretary tries to do is hog-tying the internal auditor.

Yes, it is tempting to say it’s nice that the Legislature’s commission and the governor’s secretary are getting along swimmingly, as they demonstrated in their joint attack on the auditor at a meeting earlier this month of the House Legislative Oversight Committee, which is reviewing the agency.

After all, one of the Legislature’s primary goals the last time it pretended to restructure the agency was to make sure that the governor had authority over the agency in name only. It did this by giving the commission the power to decide which projects are completed and requiring the commission’s approval before the secretary can undertake a long list of routine tasks, including selling surplus property, advertising for or awarding consulting contracts, entering into contracts worth more than $500,000 or approving “resurfacing, installation of new signals, curb cuts on primary roads, bike lanes, or construction projects.”

Since the law sets the secretary up to be the biggest scapegoat in state government, you don’t have to be too cynical to wonder if the secretary has been co-opted by the commission, which of course would want to protect a secretary it has managed to co-opt. For that matter, you don’t have to be too cynical to wonder if that isn’t part of the reason the governor can’t seem to keep a transportation secretary.

Of course, we should not dismiss the possibility that the chief internal auditor is a loose cannon, as both the acting director and the commissioners suggested when they all testified before the House committee. And honestly, it was a little creepy — in a Curtis Loftis sort of way — how auditor Paul was practically begging legislators to ask him to elaborate on his vague references to not being allowed to do certain types of investigations. (They did.) It almost felt like he was trying just a little too hard.

Even Rep. Ralph Norman, one of the harshest critics of the Transportation Department, seemed to suggest the commission should fire Mr. Townes if he wanted to do a different kind of audit than the commission wanted him to do.

Ah, but here’s what makes this dust-up more than a petty power struggle: The commission can’t fire Mr. Townes unless it finds him guilty of “malfeasance, misfeasance, incompetency, absenteeism, conflicts of interest, misconduct, persistent neglect of duty in office, or incapacity.” That’s an inconvenient truth that a commission panel seems to have recognized after going behind closed doors on Thursday for what looked like a discussion of firing Mr. Townes, only to emerge and acknowledge that no action would be taken.

The reason the commission can’t fire Mr. Townes is that the Legislature wanted to ensure that the internal auditor could be an independent auditor. The Legislature wanted to make sure no one could step in and put a stop to audits that were uncovering waste, fraud and abuse — as the commission seems to have done.

Commission chairman Jim Rozier and vice chairman Mike Wooten didn’t dispute Mr. Townes’ charge that they didn’t want him doing performance audits, where he casts a wide net to see what turns up; they just spun it differently. He needs to focus on the areas the agency wants him to focus on instead of trying to be a cop, Mr. Wooten said. Added Mr. Rozier: “We’ve got to decide whether we work for the internal auditor or the internal auditor works for us.”

Certainly it’s great if an internal auditor (or anyone) can help an agency improve in those areas where the management has determined improvement is needed. Certainly an auditor has an obligation to contact law enforcement when he thinks he has uncovered criminal wrongdoing. But even if Mr. Townes is overly eager to find problems whether they exist or not, it makes a mockery of the concept of internal auditing to limit his job to efficiency expert, or to expect him to avoid going down any trails that might potentially uncover criminal activity.

Ideally, an internal auditor finds problems before they turn into crises, and the agency corrects those problems. It’s not unlike the role we’re expecting the House and Senate oversight committees to perform, as they undertake regular reviews of all state agencies.

The House oversight committee hearing revealed a crisis that’s just waiting to happen. Let’s hope the committee can figure out the appropriate way to avert that crisis.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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