State auditor outlines staffing challenges
BY WILLIAM F. WEST
Tuesday, August 13, 2019
North Carolina’s chief watchdog for state government made clear while she is operating with a smaller staff than in the past, she is not going to sacrifice quality just to fill a position.
State Auditor Beth Wood spoke to a luncheon of the Rocky Mount Rotary Club on Monday at the Power House at Rocky Mount Mills and took questions from the audience.
One of the questions focused on whether Wood, 65 and in her 11th year in office, has adequate staff to conduct investigations and, if not, where would she want to place more staff.
“When I became state auditor, I had 200 staff members working for me,” she said. “Now, I have 166 positions. So I’ve lost almost 40.”
However, Wood said she is quite glad the approximately 40 are gone.
Wood said she and her team have been working hard to make sure the state Auditor’s Office has competent staff and she said she has been working to make sure salaries are competitive with those at certified public accounting firms.
“And so, no, I don’t have all the staff that I feel like I need,” she said. “But I have just gotten to the point where I believe, at all levels — deputies, directors, managers and supervisors — I have confidence in every one that’s out there. And I would say that’s only happened in the last year and a half.”
Wood said it has taken that long to weed out what she called “deadweight” or “people that can’t do the job.”
“And when you’ve been in state government 10 years and been told you’ve been doing a great job — and then I come in and I say, ‘No, you’re not,’ it takes me a while to get you out,” Wood said.
Wood said while she does not have all of the staff she needs, she made clear she is going to be working with the General Assembly to get positions put back into place.
“But I’ll tell you right now, I’ve got 20 positions that are vacant — 20 — because I refuse to put a warm body in a position and they can’t do the job,” she said. “That’s more headache to me than not having a position filled.”
She drew applause for that statement.
She was also asked how many of the state auditors in the U.S. are elected. She said only 18 and said she is glad she is elected.
She told of her appointed colleagues telling her they are told “to stay out of here” or “stay out of there” or “get out of the middle of this” or “you’d better not go audit that.”
“I have the authority to audit where I deem appropriate,” she said.
She said that includes having the capacity to write her own subpoenas.
As a result, she said, one cannot keep her from walking in and one cannot tell her to wait a couple of days to speak to an interviewee because he or she needs a couple of days to get a story straight.
During her speech, Wood told the audience state law requires her office have a telephone hotline so people who believe state funds or federal pass-through funds have been misappropriated can call in and report allegations.
Wood said the state Auditor’s Office receives approximately 800 tips a year.
Wood said when the office conducts an investigation, the office looks at the allegations and decides whether they are something needing to be moved forward with or needing to be halted.
She said it is much easier and quicker to work through a small number of allegations.
She said if the office receives as many as 60-70 allegations about an organization, it takes time to work through those.
And she said in such a case, she and her team look at all of the allegations and prioritize them from most egregious to least egregious.
She told the audience the office’s policy is to neither confirm nor deny to the news media and the public whether an investigation is in progress.
She emphasized concerns about a person’s or an organization’s reputation being dirtied via stories in the press. She also expressed concerns about, once nothing wrong is found, the final story appearing on the back page of a newspaper.
“But I will stand here today and promise you that every, every allegation that we get is thoroughly vetted,” she said. “And we have a phenomenal team of investigators — and we can’t afford to make any mistakes. So what we do is very thorough, but it takes time.”