Auditor & Inspector Gary Jones: “rapid progress” in closing audit backlog

 Oklahoma Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones was surprised, he says, at how far behind the office was on required audits of county governments when he took the helm on January 10.

“As policy, those audits are supposed to be done every year, and must, by statute, be done every other year. When I took office and worked with the staff to identify challenges, it became clear that some counties had not been audited since 2005,” he said in an interview Wednesday (June 22).

It was a challenge, he admits, “to figure out how to approach the backlog, do the audits right, yet get caught up. There are 77 counties, and the simplest way to put it is that we have to do at least two years of work in one year.”

The pace of work is summarized, he said, by comparing three months of productivity this year with that of 2010. The agency completed 78 audit reports in the first three months of 2010; it had finished 112 audits the same time period this year.

Jones is most concerned about special investigative audits — which come at the request of the attorney general and local District Attorneys — must be given priority. The long-anticipated investigatory look at the Broken Arrow public school system was finished this month. That audit was first requested in April 2009.

“I thought that kind of time gap was the exception, but learned it was the norm,” Jones told CapitolBeatOK.

Early on, Jones reassigned resources within the office, which is located in the east wing of the state Capitol building (first floor), with other offices in the basement.

Among other moves, he made special audits a division, and he tracks the unit’s work “on virtually a daily basis. I have to emphasize that the staff responded well. They are making tremendous rapid progress on the whole issue.”

Jones continued, “It seems to me the special audits should be given the highest priority. The goal is eventually to be able to respond to most of those requests within 30 days. The goal now is to have these caught up within six months, then stay on top of things.”

As for an 8.6 percent budget cut the auditor’s office took in the latest round of tightening, he said, “We can do the current job with existing resources, and get caught up on backlogs in a reasonable time. We flattened out the management structure, and empowered managers to do their job. That gets more auditors into the priority area, which is the auditing process in the field. We’ve reduced administrative costs.”

Looking ahead, he said, “We’ll make a case for some resources as revenues permit, but this is exactly the right time to be a role model for smaller, more efficient government.

Asked to describe the biggest surprise he has encountered thus far, Jones replied, “Clearly, the big shock was how far behind we really were. I knew that was an issue but did not know the time gap was so wide.”

He continued, “The second surprise is how willing the employees were to chip in and get it done. I cannot overstate how good the response has been. Not everyone knows that every employee here is unclassified, so we could have cleaned house. Still, I did not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Steve Tinsley, an auditor Jones brought back to the agency, is helping build a cadre of employees with “more experience in government accounting than has been available in the past.”

Jones said he has faced no major disappointments.  As for the future, “There are opportunities I hope we don’t miss.  We think there is need for a government accountability office.  I believe that office should be housed here. That would allow regular performance audits of government functions to determine whether taxpayers are getting value for their money. I believe in the very near future we will be positioned to play a central role in making government more accountable to citizens.”

Jones said his first encounters with the state Legislature were positive. He requested statutory changes to improve operations, boost transparency and assure access to public audit records.

One result was Senate Bill 130, by Senator Jim Reynolds, an Oklahoma City Republican. The measure passed easily and garnered Gov. Mary Fallin’s signature. The bill makes it easier for county officials to accurately present financial information, “in a format based on a county’s estimate of needs statement,” Jones explained.

The measure is an important step to help eliminate the county audit backlogs. The law eliminated redundant presentation of financial information in a prescribed format Jones described as “onerous.”

Jones says the benefit of the new approach to taxpayers includes the ability of the Auditor and Inspector to conduct more meaningful, timely financial and performance reviews of Oklahoma government.

House Bill 1207, sponsored by Rep. Jason Murphey of Guthrie, contains language Jones sought which will lead to easier, less costly access to audit information, “for anyone with an Internet connection.  The measure requires cities, school districts and any other public entity required to file audits or other reports with the office to do so electronically.”

As the system becomes operational, Jones said, “These documents will be posted to the State Auditor’s website and may be accessed at no charge by anyone wanting to check on how government is safeguarding public assets.”