Auditor Sonntag's fights for accountability irk fellow Democrats

It's cut-the-Sonntag-budget time again in Olympia. But voters give Sonntag high margins and high marks for all the performance audits his office undertakes. And is he a future governor?

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Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag.

It's cut-the-Sonntag-budget time again in Olympia. But voters give Sonntag high margins and high marks for all the performance audits his office undertakes. And is he a future governor?

Several actions last week brought to the forefront the role of State Auditor Brian Sonntag and of his performance audits of public and quasi-public agencies. Sonntag is a strong vote-getter who outpolls his fellow Democratic state officeholders, and has just said he is looking at a race for governor next year. consistently gets results, He has a record of saving taxpayers big money. Just as consistently, he must fight off efforts by the Democratic-controlled legislature to cut back his powers and budget.

This is happening again now.

At a time when his audits of Seattle Public Schools and Seattle City Light transactions were front-page Seattle news, Sonntag was forced to write a letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire urging her to veto two sections of the state operating budget that would transfer $8 million from his performance-audit budget to other state agencies. Such tranfers, Sonntag said in his letter, were not in keeping with the provisions of voter-passed Initiative 900 (perhaps Tim Eyman's single positive contribution to state governance). Also, some $17 million had been swept from the Performance Audits of Government account, Sonntag's letter reminded the governor, to help balance the state's general-fund budget.

Elected officials love to talk in general about about weeding out "fraud and abuse." But, when it actually happens — and hits political allies or favored bureacracies — that is another thing. Hence the recurring attempts to shut Sonntag down.

Beyond the ongoing Martin Luther King Jr. School sale and Seattle City Light affairs, Sonntag has had a string of successes that struck home:

Port of Seattle: Serious and pervasive problems were found in the Port's management of the $1.5 billion third-runway construction project at Sea-Tac Airport. An audit established the likelihood of fraud and identified $97.2 mlllion in unnecessary spending, as well as inadequate oversight by the Port Commission.  Department of Justice and FBI investigations followed, although no indictments ensued.

The Port has tightened its oversight of such projects and also has established new transparency requirements.

Seattle Public Schools:  The pending review of the school district's sale of the surplused MLK School to a prominent black church is only the latest in a string of irregularities uncovered by such audits.  Earlier this year $1.8 million in questionable costs and spending were uncovered in the Small Business Development program.  Some $1.5 million in spending, an audit found, did not benefit the district and another $300,000 went to a private company for work either benefiting that company or not performed at all.  The King County prosecutor is investigating possible related criminal activity.  The superintendent and finance director are gone.

A regular audit last year found, among other things, that the district overpaid 83 employees $187,000, because of lack of oversight. The year before an audit found the district had lost more than $500,000 in school supplies and equipment and failed to report the loss, as required by state law.

Seattle City Light: In 1999, the City of Seattle shifted the cost of street lighting to City Light and the additional cost to the utility was passed on to its customers.  (This was the brainchild of former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, who wanted to free $5 million for road repairs.) Sonntag challenged the legality of the action in an audit.  The State Supreme Court ruled the cost-shifting violated the state constitution.  City Light subsequently refunded $25 million to its customers.

Tax amnesty:  In a 2009 performance review, Sonntag proposed a tax-amnesty program patterned after successful efforts in other states. Gregoire opposed the proposal but, as the state budget crisis mounted, the Department of Revenue proceeded with it (by then, with Gregoire's blessing). A three-month period was established to forgive interest and penalties on delinquent and unidentified taxes — if businesses paid up. Gregoire budgeted $24 million in anticipated revenue from the program.  When the three-month period ended April 30, more than 8,900 state businesses had paid $282 million to state government and $61 million to local government. Some of the businesses had been previously unregistered. Now they have been added to the tax rolls.

Liquor sales and distribution: The auditor concluded that $277 million could be generated by selling assets and franchising the rights to sell liquor to private retailers. Subsequently, two state initiatives were filed, qualified for the 2010 ballot, and were defeated. However, the legislature has since passed a measure, now on Gregoire's desk, to lease the state's liquor warehouse and distribution facilities to a private vendor.

School employee health benefits: Currently, the state's 295 school districts pay $1.21 billion to employee health plans.  The auditor found there were more than 1,000 different pools to fund health benefits and more than 200 separate plans issued by 10 insurance companies. Wide disparities were found in benefits, district to district, and between groups of employees. (For example, 27 percent of school employees who are single pay no premiums for their coverage whereas those with families pay up to $500 monthly.) Sonntag proposed the plans be made more consistent and more in-line with other public-employee plans, saving taxpayers some $90 million annually.

The Legislature since has directed the state Health Care Authority to implement a consolidated health benefits system for K-12 employees for the 2013-14 school year. The Health Care Authority's report is due to the Legislature on Dec. 15.

Highway 18: The auditor's State Whistleblower Program brought a report from a state employee which led to uncovering of gross mismanagement of a project widening a 3.5-mile section of Highway 18 in King County. In 2003 the state Department of Transportation awarded a $55 million contract to widen the section. After five years, costs had ballooned to $98.5 million, a cost of $28 million per mile.

There had been 156 change orders in the contract. They were unquestioned, just approved. An auditor's investigation found little monitoring and oversight for the project in addition to design errors and environmental violations. The environmental violations alone added $4.5 million to the project cost.

Other violations and mismanagements have been found in state parks, counties, and sewer districts. An audit recently uncovered unusually high-cost transactions in a water and sewer district near Bellingham. An alleged several-hundred-thousand-dollar misappropriation, involving a sewer-district official, is currently under investigation.

Brian Sonntag is an old-style "people's Democrat" in the mold of Sens. Warren Magnuson and Scoop Jackson. He grew up campaigning for John and Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and other practical liberals of the 1960s. His father was auditor of Pierce County for 21 years, a job his son also held. Sonntag, 60, has been state auditor since 1992, where he has continued to see his role as the defense of ordinary state citizens against abuses by bureaucracies and big institutions.

Who could argue with that, you may ask? Fact is, Sonntag and his programs get active opposition from the Legislature, every legislative session, and only passive support from the governor. He is a sometime-bearer of unpleasant tidings and embarrassments. State voters, however, have no such reservations about the long-serving Tacoma Democrat. They send him back to Olympia with huge winning electoral margins (the last time he ran he won with 70 percent of the vote). He is exactly the person we need in the auditor's job — and in any other electoral office he might seek.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of