Legislative auditor: Watchdog in the limelight

Legislative Auditor James Nobles
MinnPost photo by Daniel Corrigan
James Nobles: “I want to bring good value to government.”

It wouldn’t be surprising to find a picture of the goateed visage of Legislative Auditor James Nobles affixed to a dartboard in Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s office.

The week before the 2008 legislative session had begun in early February, Nobles and his staff at the legislative auditor’s office delivered a scathing indictment of JOBZ, Pawlenty’s signature economic development program, issuing a 109-page report laden with damning criticisms about inefficiency and lack of oversight and providing 30 recommendations for improvement.

Eleven days later, in the same week that the House and the Senate were taking up a multibillion-dollar transportation plan despite a veto threat from the governor, Nobles and his staff released another lengthy “evaluation report,” this one on the future of the state’s roads and bridges, which Nobles memorably characterized as “downright grim.” More than one of the six Republican House members who voted for both the bill and to override Pawlenty’s veto publicly stated that the nonpartisan audit played a key role in their decision.

Taken together, the JOBZ and roads and bridges reports created an unusually high profile for the 60-year-old Nobles, who has run the legislative auditor’s office since 1983. Yet as the top legislative watchdog at the Capitol, he understands that he will invariably court controversy and step on the toes of politicians in both parties.

Over the course of an 80-minute interview, Nobles defended the integrity of his office.

Minnpost: How are your duties determined?

Nobles: The financial audit work is pretty much in statute; we have jurisdiction over 160 organizations and we try to get to them periodically. They are fairly technical audits and legislators don’t get very involved with them. Then there are the investigations. In an audit we are really looking at an organization’s compliance to a process, but in an investigation, we are doing it because we have received an allegation about a possible impropriety about an individual and it is going to focus on an individual. We recently did one about [Secretary of State] Mark Ritchie is a good example. And we use somewhat different tools. I have the authority to initiate an investigation on my own, or I can be asked to do one by anybody. And the legislative audit commission, the people I work for and who appoint me, can direct us to do an investigation.

MP: Can you quickly determine an investigation is frivolous and come back and tell them that?

Yes. In fact we get on average from about 80 to 100 complaints and allegations a year. I wouldn’t call them frivolous but many of them are because some citizen reads something in the paper or sees a state car is parked at Target and they want to know what is going on and calls this office or sends an email or whatever. And we take each of those seriously, even from anonymous sources, and do some due diligence. If someone says, “I saw some commissioner down in Florida when I was on vacation,” the first thing we do is check his time sheets and see if he was on vacation or a holiday or was there on state business. So we can do that kind of preliminary assessment and if the facts start to line up and it appears that maybe something is wrong, we’ll pursue an investigation. But only a handful of those really develop through the years. … But I’d say out of the 80 or so that don’t get rolled into audits, probably half or so get pursued as separate investigations.

Then there is the part of our work that probably gets the greatest visibility and that is the evaluations, like JOBZ. By statute, the legislative audit commission has to review those and select them.

MP: I remember hearing that the evaluation report on state roads and bridges was more rushed. 

We try to stick to the agenda and then go off for four or five or six months, not try and do quick studies on the issues of the day that pop up. The exception being that when the bridge collapsed, the legislative leaders really felt like they needed to be part of some follow up and some investigation or process that sorted out what had happened. And people kind of quickly remembered that back in 1997 we had issued a report on highways and bridges and that the state was facing some challenges involving maintenance and repair on highways and bridges because of the potential for declining resources. People remembered we had specifically spoken about these fracture critical bridges as well. So the legislative audit commission assembled and said why don’t you go back and take a broad look and see how MnDOT implemented your recommendations?

MP: Do you get frustrated when you’re ignored?

JN: No, because we have the privilege of being able to go find things out and then present what we consider an objective unbiased report on the effectiveness and efficiency of the programs. But most of them do have politics to them or they wouldn’t have followed the legislative process. We don’t play a role in those politics; other people are elected to deal with that. I only get frustrated if I think our report is being ignored, but if legislators consider what we say and then decide they want to do something different, or do nothing, then I say fine. They are accountable to the voters every two years and I am appointed to a six year term. So I’ll go off and do another evaluation.

MP: Have you ever been in a position like you were this year? You were evaluating JOBZ, arguably the governor’s signature economic development program, and then roads and bridges, arguably the issue in which the governor’s prestige, at least in terms of his being able to sustain his veto or not, was most on the line. And as it came out, you put forth positions in both instances that were detrimental to the governor’s political fortunes.

JN: I have always maintained very good relations with the governor’s office over the course of my career. I have known most of the governors personally because most of them have been in the Legislature. Whenever there is a new governor I meet with him and his staff, and remain in close contact. They know what we are doing; they know why we are doing it, and I believe — and you can ask them — that they have confidence that we are nonpartisan. Even if it may look like a series of reports are beating up on them.

This whole thing about politics works out over the long term. Some of the reports favor the position of the Democrats and some of the reports favor the position of the Republicans. That’s why over my long career I have not been tempted to conclude that one party has been more correct on the issues than the other. That will offend both sides, I assume.

MP: So you don’t subscribe to the idea that the truth has a liberal bias?

JN: [laughs] No. You know the only way in which that might be true is that I really believe in the important role government can play. But I also honestly believe that once an agency is given a responsibility, it has to be fulfilled in a very serious and cost effective way. I want to bring good value to government. That tends to make me say government is important, if for no other reason than it is extracting a lot of money from the citizens and needs to use it effectively. So I am not one of those who just throw up their hands at government altogether, say they are just a bunch of slugs wasting our money. I believe we can take money and do good things. But I believe you really have to work hard and set high standards. I would like all of government to work the way I manage this office, with great intensity.

MP: In your 24 years on the job, what is the most egregious example of someone trying to sideline or otherwise impede your investigation?

JN: Oh, we don’t really tolerate that.

MP: But surely there are attempts every now and then?

JN: Sure. But they don’t last long. We have very strong law. The law says basically you give us the data we ask for. You accommodate us on our terms and if that doesn’t happen, we have subpoena power.

MP: How often do you have to invoke it?

Not very often.

MP: When was the last time?

JN: A couple of months ago. I wanted an investigative report that another organization had done and I wanted an unredacted copy of it. So I got a subpoena for it.

It had to do with [MnDOT official] Sonia Morphew Pitt.

MP: Are you thankful when the findings turn out to be less partisan? For example, many people thought the Mark Ritchie investigation might be a witch hunt, but, even though you found that Ritchie did not misuse state resources or otherwise break the law, you were able to call him on the carpet for being less than forthcoming with your investigation.

We don’t plan it this way, but sure, it is far better if you’ve got a little bit for everybody — or a whole bunch for everybody.

MP: You said the bridges were overall in pretty good shape compared to expectations.

JN: Yes, in better shape. I also did something in that evaluation. [pause] I don’t know how noticeable it was, but if you look at the Dan Dorgan interview, that interview basically refutes a lot of the allegations that were made trying to tie the commissioner, or now the former commissioner [Carol Molnau], to the bridge collapse. I didn’t know what Dan Dorgan would say. But I thought he deserved to say what he wanted to say unedited, and there it is.

MP: Has anybody ever just gone off and blasted you and your office for what you have found?

JN: Oh sure. The iron rangers, for example. We did a few evaluations of the IRRRB — it is called something else now — and the iron rangers would always be up in arms. I would always avoid getting in the elevator with [Rep.] Tom Rukavina [DFL, Virginia], but he’s my friend, we get along. I can remember a report that Senator [Larry] Pogemiller [DFL-Minneapolis] just absolutely hated, that we did on compensatory education. Just hated it. He was the chair of the education committee at the time and a lot of money out of that program was going to Minneapolis. Legislators see that and we take our lumps. I’ve had legislators tell me, “You are critical of a program that helps my district. I don’t disagree with what you’ve found but I don’t like your report and I am going to speak against it and work against it.” That goes on all the time. And the important thing, if you are going to live in this world, is to respect that. I would ask them not to take it too far, not to make it personal, not to question our integrity or our motives.

MP: You obviously can’t have many personal peccadilloes on this job.

People ask how I maintain my independence and nonpartisanship. It is fairly easy for me by inclination, because I am the guy in the middle — I honestly see and believe that the Democrats and Republicans and both ends of the political spectrum have made important contributions to this country. I only wish both sides would recognize the contributions of the other. But I have never been to a political caucus. I vote every year but I will never reveal how I vote. And I have said this a number of times and offended people but I take this so far that I ask my wife not to put any bumper stickers on her car. The reason for that is every once in a while I have to drive her car. My wife is a woman of strong opinions, believe me, but fortunately she understands and respects the role I have.

Britt Robson is a freelance writer who reports on politics and state government.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 03/21/2008 - 06:39 pm.

    Because the Legislative Audit Commission and appropriations for the Auditor direct what to audit, it works better when the Governor is not in the party having commissioned an audit.

    That is why the airports commission audit of a few years ago misfired (the Audit Commission in effect said “Don’t go too far.”) and why the South Metro Airports Action Council asked Legislators to take a closer look.

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