April 22, 2010
Can A “Forensic Audit” Save Illinois?
By Eric Zorn
I love the determined, sniff ’em out and lock ’em up sound of a “forensic audit” of state government, don’t you?
It was the bumper-sticker demand of defeated Republican gubernatorial primary candidate Adam Andrzejewski.
And now there are GOP-backed measures in the Illinois House and Senate calling for “a forensic audit of all state spending, hiring, procurement, and contracts awarded and the appointment of board and commission officials and decisions made by boards and commissions or those with procurement or hiring authority during the Blagojevich administration.”
The Better Government Association is on board with the idea as is Democratic budget hawk Rep. Jack D. Franks of Marengo, whose approving essay (Want to solve the budget crisis? Say no to spending) appeared in the Tribune Thursday.
The word “forensic” makes you think of precision crime fighting — “Relating to the use of science or technology in the investigation and establishment of facts or evidence in a court of law,” says the American Heritage Dictionary. Fans of legal procedurals know that forensic accountants are those who specialize in investigating suspect economic transactions and uncovering fraud.
A statewide forensic audit would “identify waste, fraud, abuse and corruption,” as well as duplication of services, according to Andrzejewski, who heads up For the Good of Illinois, an anti-tax advocacy group.
I wanted to know more about this notion, so I called the National Governors Association, which tracks states’ strategies for attacking difficult budget problems.
Officials there hadn’t heard of it and directed me to the National Association of State Budget Officers, which passed me off to the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers where an associate director told me forensic audit was not a term of art in the field.
When I reached the Council of State Governments in Lexington, Ky., executive director David Adkins told me, “I’d never heard the term until your phone call today.”
Adkins is important because he was a Republican state legislator in Kansas from 1993 until 2005, and those who are now calling for a forensic audit of Illinois government frequently claim that a forensic audit in the Jayhawk State in 2003 saved taxpayers $1 billion.
It’s true, said Adkins, that then-Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius instituted an aggressive review of state spending practices early in her first term. “But most of the savings came from picking low-hanging fruit,” he said, such as selling off state vehicles.
“They found no fraud and nobody went to jail,” said former Kansas House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, also a Republican, who was among those who dismissed Sebelius’ $1-billion-saved claim as “smoke and mirrors” when she ran for re-election in 2006. “It wasn’t even a real audit,” Neufeld said. “It was a bunch of kitchen-table groups” who “found things like cheaper places to buy office supplies.”
A review of Sebelius’ claims in the Topeka Capital-Journal in 2006 attributed $813 million of the $1 billion “savings” to alterations in the state’s 10-year comprehensive highway plan.
Advocates also point to an aggressive budget initiative in the early 1990s by Texas Democratic Gov. Ann Richards — the Texas Performance Review — which methodically challenged the basic assumptions behind numerous line items and looked for ways to save money and make government more efficient. It’s widely credited with saving billions over the last few decades and inspiring numerous other states to launch similar efforts to test and measure program performance.
But it wasn’t a “forensic audit.” Certainly not the costly fishing expedition envisioned by the proposals now in Springfield.
“These resolutions would require my office to re-examine 135 million transactions and check all the details on about 50,000 contracts a year going back nine years,” said Illinois Auditor General William Holland. “It would be a mind-boggling, astronomical cost. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Holland, whose office is nonpartisan, was once chief of staff to former Democratic Senate President Phil Rock. And though Holland formally takes no position on any bill, he said it’s “very doubtful” that such an undertaking would pay for itself.
Still, Holland acknowledges what’s no secret to any of us: State government could be — must be — run more efficiently, especially in times of fiscal crisis like these. Not every program needs to continue. Not every dollar is spent wisely (I’m looking at you, lawmakers and bureaucrats with state cars).
But as good as it sounds, the forensic audit looks more like a gimmick than a plan.
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