Eric Zorn, columnist
February 23, 2011
Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel told WGN AM 720′s Greg Jarrett this morning, “I’m going to order, on day one, a forensics audit of all the departments and all of how the resources are spent.” (full interview mp3)
The term of art is actually “forensic,” singular, audit, but Emanuel was operating on very little sleep. Still, this looks like news to me, though I’m skeptical of the claims made for this idea and therefore of the theories that spin excitedly off of it.
Even so, the city’s finances need a thorough scrubbing for inefficiencies, waste and fraud
Wednesday morning, I heard Rahm Emanuel utter what I believed to be his first public f-bomb as mayor-elect: “forensics.”
Speaking on the phone to WGN-AM 720 host Greg Jarrett, Emanuel said, “I’m going to order, on day one, a forensics audit of all the departments and … of how the resources are spent.”
The actual term of accounting art is “forensic” audit, singular, but Emanuel was operating on very little sleep and we’re accustomed to translating mayor-speak in these parts.
The idea’s been out there. Former GOP gubernatorial hopeful and tea-party darling Adam Andrzejewski made it a bumper-sticker demand before last year’s primary, and Republican-sponsored measures in the Illinois House and Senate called for “a forensic audit of all state spending, hiring, procurement, and contracts awarded … during the Blagojevich administration.”
Reform-minded Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, indicated his support for a forensic audit of the city’s books in an Aug. 22 column by my colleague John Kass, and Kass has since advanced the theory that fear of a deep examination of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s two decades in office was the catalyst that prompted Daley to announce a little more than two weeks later that he would not seek re-election.
In courtroom law, “forensic” is used to describe a CSI-style look back into the minutia of individual or organizational financial transactions by accountants who have special training in detecting fraud.
In government, though, “forensic audit” is more a vague threat than a realistic proposal — it’s not used by the National Association of State Budget Officers, the National Association of State Auditors, comptrollers and treasurers or the Council of State Governments in Lexington, Ky., — and it’s not even clear that Emanuel actually meant to imply such a threat.
“My understanding of a classic forensic audit is it might take two or 21/2 years to go over every nickel and dime and quarter that’s been spent on the city, and it could costs upward of a hundred million bucks,” WFLD-Ch. 32 political reporter Mike Flannery said to Emanuel at a news conference later Wednesday. “Is that what you’re talking about, or something other than that?
“It would be something else,” Emanuel said. That something “would give us a sense of where fouls are.” A bit later he elaborated, “The forensic audit wouldn’t achieve everything, but one of the things I want out of (it) is, are we doing better in legal? Are we doing better in financial? What’s the baseline for architectural? What’s the baseline for general contractor?”
So what might this forensic audit that’s “something else” other than an actual forensic audit entail? I put this question to Emanuel’s spokesman Ben LaBolt, who replied, “You’re further down the road then we are, Eric.”
OK, but what I see down this road is little interest in or appetite for empaneling what Chicago’s Inspector General Joseph Ferguson dismissively calls “a patronage war-crimes commission” to try to expose hinky deals of yore.
“I laud the motivation, but we don’t have the luxury or the time,” said Ferguson. The next administration “urgently needs to look forward” and use the city’s scanty auditing resources to look for “where all the money is being spent, by what purposes and by whom.”
Ferguson’s predecessor, David Hoffman (who endorsed Emanuel during the mayoral campaign), said it would be best to “delete the term ‘forensic audit’ ” from the conversation as it seems to sow confusion. But he stressed that any in-depth look at city finances would inevitably go back several years.
Rather than sword-rattling proposals and scary adjectives, what Chicago needs is a far bigger staff of independent auditors. The inspector general’s office has just five and needs up to 20 to keep an eye on things, according to Hoffman. These auditors would thoroughly and regularly (though unpredictably) pore over the books of city departments looking for inefficiencies, waste and, yes, fraud.
“We just can’t afford to go back five or 10 years to dig up stuff,” said Waguespack, who was handily re-elected Tuesday to a second four-year term. “But let’s open up all the books and see what we have right now in terms of all the contracts, all the TIF (tax-increment financing district) money, all the money in the regular budget. Then let’s audit how we’re using all the resources we have.”
Not an f-bomb, as such, but an explosive idea nevertheless.