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It’s time to give our watchdogs back their bite

Each attack on our watchdogs undermines the independence of our oversight system.

The surprise ouster of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink is more than just “politics as usual” — it points to a troubling trend that threatens to erode the integrity of America’s oversight systems.

We all say we value accountability. We know that when we keep our promises to each other, we build trust, and trust allows us to do better work and get better results.

We value that trust so much that we have created a system of government watchdogs to protect the integrity of the work we do together. And when it comes to watchdogs, we expect them to be honest, fearless, and fiercely independent.

Or do we?

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Recent attacks on watchdogs suggest otherwise.

Leppink’s ouster

The most recent example was the surprise removal of Leppink on Aug. 12 by the Minnesota Senate. Republicans said that Leppink was removed for being “difficult to work with,” while Democrats maintained she was holding businesses accountable by insisting they treat their workers fairly and follow the law. It was clear that this was an attempt by the Minnesota Senate GOP to pressure Gov. Tim Walz to end our current Peacetime Emergency. This action sends the message that if you have a job that calls on you to protect the public, merely doing your job can cause you to be removed. Fear like that can impact a watchdog’s independence, or at least the public’s perception of their ability to do thorough investigations and enforce the law.

State Auditor Julie Blaha
State Auditor Julie Blaha
Unfortunately, tactics like this are no longer anomalies, as evidenced by President Donald Trump’s removal of an unprecedented number of inspector generals this year. Trump is not the first president who’s had the impulse to muzzle those who oversee his office, but the check on those impulses normally provided by Congress has been notably absent. The result is deepening distrust in the federal government’s ability to fulfill its duties to the American people with competence and integrity.

Attempts to trade watchdogs for lapdogs are not the only threat to our nation’s oversight system. Elected watchdogs like me cannot be removed in the same manner as appointed officials, but we are not immune to attacks on our ability to protect the public, either. Those who would like to get rid of the watchdogs can’t fire us, but they can shorten our leash.

A North Dakota example

The North Dakota state auditor got to experience this firsthand. In 2018, he exposed their governor’s misuse of state planes and uncovered conflicts of interest of powerful people. How did the North Dakota legislature respond to this betrayal of public trust? Instead of holding the wrongdoers accountable, they now require the auditor to get legislative permission before conducting these kinds of investigations.

Starving government watchdogs into silence is another tactic to undermine accountability. Across the country, offices like mine are struggling with dwindling resources In Minnesota for example, the size of the Office of the State Auditor has been reduced by 45% since 2005, despite having the duty to oversee almost $40 billion in local government spending. A combination of funding cuts and funding that failed to keep pace with inflation severely restrains our ability to provide an effective level of examination.

Each attack on our watchdogs undermines the independence of our oversight system. And without independence, the public quickly loses trust in those providing system oversight, and ultimately in the systems themselves.

Watchdogs need protection

How do we protect the independence of our oversight professionals? Lawmakers need to base confirmation decisions on the merits of the candidate, not politics. Budgets of offices entrusted with protecting the public need to be tied to the magnitude of their oversight responsibility, not left to erode into impotence. Those who oversee government need the freedom to follow an investigation wherever it leads, without needing permission from those they investigate.

Minnesotans need to know that there are those in government who will watch over their interests and speak out when their interests are being betrayed. It’s time to give our watchdogs back their bite.

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Julie Blaha is the state auditor of Minnesota. The Office of the State Auditor is the constitutional office that oversees nearly $40 billion in local government finances for Minnesota taxpayers. The office helps to ensure financial integrity and accountability in local government financial activities.

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