Brown turns to audits in secretary of state race

Brown turns to audits in secretary of state race
In this July 31, 2012 photo, Secretary of State Kate Brown meets with the Statesman Journal Editorial Board in Salem, Ore.Secretary of State Kate Brown has staked much of her case for re-election on her aggressive auditing of government agencies. The Democratic incumbent says she's done 236 audits finding $180 million in savings. (AP Photo/Statesman-Journal, Danielle Peterson)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Secretary of State Kate Brown has staked much of her case for re-election on her aggressive auditing of government agencies.

Brown, a Democrat, says she's done 236 audits finding $180 million in savings. A television ad shows her standing in an office with piles of black binders stacked around her.

But Brown's Republican rival, Knute Buehler, says she hasn't done enough to turn those recommended savings into actual dollars. Their spat has vaulted a mundane government function toward the spotlight in one of Oregon's only competitive political races this year.

"We're producing more audits with bigger impact than before," Brown told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

The Oregon constitution tasks the elected secretary of state as the "auditor of public accounts," among other functions. Brown's auditing division employs 71 people who examine the performance and finances of government agencies and recommend improvements where necessary. Most local governments also are required to hire a certified public accountant to audit their financial statements each year.

With a disciplined, well-funded campaign, Buehler has given Brown a tough re-election fight, and she's turned to the work of her auditing division to lay out her case for a second term.

In 2008, the year before she took office, the secretary of state's auditing division identified $8 in savings for every $1 spent on auditing, Brown points out. In 2010, the figure ballooned to $64 in savings for each dollar invested.

"I would say that's a real return on your investment," Brown said.

Brown's office produced data showing auditors found $152 million in savings in 2010. The state spent $2.4 million dollars on those audits, backing up her claim of $64 in savings identified for every dollar spent investigating them.

Over a 10-year period, however, 2010 was an outlier, boosted by a single audit of the Department of Revenue. The review found 66,000 people who should have filed a state income tax return but didn't in the 2007 tax year, leaving about $108 million on the table. Returns on audit investments were below 10-to-1 in five of the previous nine years.

Regardless of the ratio, Buehler asserts that Brown isn't doing enough to actually realize the savings her auditors have identified.

"There's just a lack of accountability, and I think we see that in so many ways," Buehler said.

Buehler says Brown hasn't used several hammers in state law that she could deploy to force agencies to comply with her audit recommendations. In some circumstances, the secretary of state can have the state withhold 10 percent of the money owed to local governments if they won't correct problems identified in an audit, or she can recommend that the governor withhold pay from state officials who drag their feet.

Buehler's campaign also says Brown has exaggerated the potential savings or failed to audit certain agencies. He says Brown's auditors missed red flags

Brown acknowledged that she couldn't say exactly how much money was saved or recovered as a result of her audits, but she said her office has stepped up efforts to follow up on recommendations. Brown meets with agency directors to discuss audits, she said, and auditors sometimes do follow-up audits to check on progress.

Auditing standards say their findings are only recommendations and not mandates, said Gary Blackmer, director of the auditing division under Brown. Buehler's recommendations risk violating those standards, he said.

"That starts approaching a mandate when you say, 'You either do what the audit says or we're going to take your pay away,'" Blackmer said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

Brown and her opponent, Knute Buehler, were recently on KATU's Sunday morning political show, "Your Voice, Your Vote." Watch the show below.