Olympia's feared watchdog: Brian Sonntag

He's got even more authority now, thanks to a voter-approved initiative that provides for evaluations of public-agency performance. The state auditor is effecting change inside institutions like the Port of Seattle.
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Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag.

He's got even more authority now, thanks to a voter-approved initiative that provides for evaluations of public-agency performance. The state auditor is effecting change inside institutions like the Port of Seattle.

Not long ago, the scariest phone call a public official could get usually involved someone like Eric Nalder, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's ace investigative reporter. If Eric calls, the best thing is to just realize your guilt, resign, and get it over with.

In recent years, though, the hottest hand in investigative reporting might be State Auditor Brian Sonntag, who's long been scrappy but who now may be downright scary because of a 2005 Tim Eyman initiative, I-900, that gave him funds and authority to conduct "performance audits" of public agencies.

Auditors are little known to the public but closely watched by journalists looking for stories or even validation of their own exposes. For many years, the gold standard of auditing was the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress whose reports typically focus on important issues, are based on thorough research, and state conclusions in simple English.

That last feature is especially welcome but not common with all audits. Many reports are written in accountant speak. Rather than just say the money was lost or stolen, the auditors would say funds were "expended without sufficient authorization." In those instances, you have to call the auditor and hope for a quote that makes sense so the inevitable headline gets written. ("Auditor blasts ..." is common, though I've yet to see gunfire in any reports.)

In my years following government, I've read audits written on city and county government, Sound Transit, the old Metro, state agencies, and the Port of Seattle. I've seen the occasional "independent" audits commissioned by agencies to examine a question about their processes. Several years ago, an audit launched by the Seattle City Council of Seattle City Light triggered an avalanche of publicity that ultimately led to the departure of Superintendent Gary Zarker.

Sometimes, agencies commission audits to highlight known issues and build support for desired management changes, as the Seattle School District recently did. But in that instance, the auditors came back with a report so scathing it may have eclipsed the intended reforms.

Increasingly, the most explosive audits come from Sonntag, a burly father of five who first joined the public sector in 1978 as Pierce County clerk. He became state auditor in 1993 and since has forcefully pushed for government accountability. In 2005, he helped bring down the Seattle Monorail with a critical audit. More recently, he criticized the state Department of Transportation and said it should make congestion reduction its top priority.

The biggest headlines came from his report on the Port of Seattle. In late December, his office said the port had wasted $100 million in taxpayer money because of lax oversight of construction at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The port contested some of the allegations, accepted others, and vowed reforms. Last week, the port tried to bring a close to the controversy by announcing a restructuring to oversee capital projects.

Auditors cultivate an image of sobriety – just the facts, ma'am. But in truth, an audit is not immune to errors, wrong assumptions, or misjudgments, or in some instances plain old politics. Putting Sonntag's office aside, I've seen instances of bad work. A few auditors have completely misunderstood topics, raised questions outside their authority, or generated new issues without giving a subject sufficient time to answer.

But that's tough beans. The first rule for anyone on the receiving end is don't fight the report. By then it's too late and you just look wormy. The smart approach is to start at the front end of the audit process and try to shape its direction.

If an audit is likely to be both negative and noticed, the best course for an agency is to get ahead of the story by announcing corrective measures that are substantive and credible. If you don't, the story just goes on and on. Skillful managers can sometimes make a bad audit fade from public discussion in a few days.

At Pier 69, port managers have seen two months of bad headlines. They may be among the first to ask, or hope, is there someone next on Sonntag's list?


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.