The Whackee Strikes Back!
by Tom Yamachika, President, Tax Foundation Hawaii
Last week we wrote about an unflattering report on the State Auditor released by a working group convened by the House Speaker’s Office. The Speaker’s memo seemingly asked his working group to help the Auditor’s Office optimize its job prioritization and scope of work, but the final product released by the working group looked more and more like a “whack job” meant to justify firing the Auditor.
On April 7, 2021, the Auditor posted, and sent to all members of the Legislature, his rebuttal. In it, he raises serious questions about the objectivity of the report, and he pulls no punches in doing so.
One of the points the Auditor makes early on is that the working group’s report made findings or conclusions about the Office’s work environment and productivity but didn’t take the time to interview either the Auditor himself or anyone currently working in his office. Certainly, there could be good reasons for the working group not to speak to current employees. If, for example, all current employees feared some kind of retribution for speaking with the working group, then maybe there would be a reason not to speak to them. But the working group report presented no such reason and no evidence supporting any such reason.
The Auditor also took issue with the working group’s conclusions that several of the audit reports requested by the Legislature were either untimely or not done at all. In addition to providing a clear explanation for the actual delivery dates, he brought out somewhat of a bombshell: an email chain, apparently sent to the Auditor by mistake, showing that one of the Speaker’s senior aides, former Interim Director of Taxation Rona Suzuki, was heavily involved in the process: she compiled a list of the 25 resolutions from 2016 through 2020 that requested an audit, she compiled or found a table showing when the corresponding report was received, concluded that three of them were on time, and wrote, “The rest were late or not done.” We in the public now have to wonder whether the working group’s findings on timeliness were independent, as opposed to influenced or controlled by the House Speaker’s Office.
The rebuttal goes on to point out House-introduced legislation that would have crippled the Auditor’s Office:
Five days after announcing that he had formed the Working Group, Speaker Saiki introduced House Bill No. 1, which proposed cutting the Office of the Auditor’s budget by more than 50 percent. Five days later, he and House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti introduced House Bill No. 354, which would give lawmakers control over the Auditor’s salary (which currently is set by the Salary Commission). And, two days after that, Representative Au Belatti introduced House Bill No. 1341, which would establish an office of public accountability to assume oversight and administrative responsibility for (i.e., control over) all of the State’s watchdog agencies, including the Office of the Auditor.
The next logical step in the process is for the House leadership to figure out whether there are enough Senate votes to support an ouster. If there are, a joint session of the Legislature will be called to take the vote.
The State Auditor’s job is not enviable, but necessary. The Auditor is supposed to help drain the proverbial swamp by bringing to the public light objective evidence and information, where the creators of that evidence and information have reasons for not wanting the public to see that information. It’s a pity that the Auditor lacks the power to take further action. A 2019 audit of the HI-5 Deposit Beverage Container Program comes to mind. The audit explained, and showed the paper trail, of more than one example of how one of the recycling companies submitted fraudulent paperwork to milk the system of taxpayer money. We wrote about it two years ago and have yet to hear of anyone getting charged or thrown in the slammer for it.
We as taxpayers should be glad to have an auditor who is willing to stand up to the flak. We taxpayers should also pay more attention to the Auditor’s reports and should ask tough questions when important information gets ignored or where the Auditor’s independence is getting attacked.
Related: State Auditor Facing a Whack Job?