Monday, October 27, 2008

Snow Flurries

Snow Flurries

“Snow is what you are up to your neck in when people send you post cards from Florida saying they wish you were there.”

Ogden Nash’s old line summarized how I and other members of the City of Denver’s Audit Committee felt after briefing on our audit finding internal control weaknesses at Denver International Airport dealing with the time accountability of snow removal program.

This comment made about as much sense as the answer from the airport administration on the snow removal audit. Snow job.

One Committee member expressed his outrage at the lack of internal controls in the program and asked pointedly, “Do you think the actions of DIA employees misusing dollars were willful?” The two auditors who worked on the audit replied, “Willful.”

Two issues add to the frustration of Audit Committee member and the Auditor’s Office on this audit:

Firstly, early written comments from airport management said they agreed with findings in the audit. But after the committee hearing, another official voice from the airport announced they did not agree with audit findings which auditors felt strongly should be turned over to the District Attorney for review. Everything is just fine, pass the white out.

Secondly a DIA spokesman, responding to a Committee members's use of the words 'misuse of tax dollars’ drew a fine distinction about airport dollars. For some reason the airport representative felt the need to remind committee members that the Airport was an Enterprise Fund. The unspoken implication of the distinction was that there is a difference in accountability for dollars extracted from people by the city operating as an airport compared to dollars extracted from citizens for general government purposes. I objected to this distinction and said there should be no difference in accountability concerning “public” dollars whatever their source.

We hope the airport can land on its feet after the initial slipping and sliding around on this issue. Working together I hope we can eventually land on the sunny side of the snowdrift on this issue.

I encourage readers to check the Auditor’s Webpage to see the full audit recommendations.

What do you know about your government?

During my many years of teaching at Regis University here in Denver, I always started off each class with a brief questionnaire asking the students (mostly freshman) to list their federal senators, congressional representative, and governor. I would ask them to write about any Supreme Court case about which they had heard. For imaginary extra credit I asked them to identify their local state senator, house member, mayor and their council member. I asked them to tag one member of the current President’s cabinet and the Comptroller General of the United States. Who?

I asked them to recognize various names from recent American history: Cesar Chavez; Hubert Humphrey; Joe McCarthy; Adlai Stevenson; Arthur Goldberg; Rosa Parks; John Lindsey; John L. Lewis; Margaret Mead; Senator Hayakawa; Charles DeGalle; Emma Lazarus and lots of others. Students from California thought Cesar Chavez was a prize fighter. They were partially correct as there is a prize fighter there named, Julio Cesar Chavez. Students knew some of their elected officials by state. Identifying a cabinet member and the Comptroller received very low responses. Students complained that these people had died before “we were even born.” Many students could select Supreme Court cases they knew about, but not much detail. Over the years, the students who seemed to know the most about all these questions hailed from Chicago.

In a similar vein, I felt like Jay Leno recently when he does his “Jaywalking.” I asked people to tell me what they knew about the “electoral college.” Some of the answers caused me great laughter: “Is that where you are teaching now, since you left Regis? Isn’t that the group who elects the Pope?”

So I prepared a welcome piece for the DNC with a postcard showing how the nation’s electoral votes went in 1908. The other side of the card asked readers to calculate how each state’s electoral votes would go in our 2008 election. I called it the “Red and blue state challenge.” The deadline for the challenge is October 15th. The cards of those reckoning the correct totals each candidate receives from the November election will be placed in a bowl and the winning name will be drawn for two nights in Vail in winter or four nights in summer.

I send the “Red and Blue State Challenge” to city workers and was criticized. The nation is falling apart and Auditor Gallagher is playing tiddlywinks with city workers and giving them a pop quiz.

Peter McLaughlin, renowned motivational speaker who lives here in Denver, emailed me and told me to continue to bring some levity into the lives of city workers. “All the research shows that a little levity in the work place increases productivity.”

Some say our greatest threat is the economic crisis; others say our unconscionable debt or the foreign terrorists. I think the greatest threat to our Republic is the vast ignorance which our citizens show to our governmental structure and processes. Ben Franklin’s fateful words when asked after the meeting originally called to amend the Articles of Confederation. He was asked “What hath we wrought?” In today’s words: “What kind of government have we come up with, Mr. Franklin?” His answer: “A republic, if you can keep it.” I pray we will be able to keep the Republic and keep our people properly informed as to how a republic works.

The Yellow Book

Have you heard of “The Yellow Book?”

The Yellow Book is the collection of Government Auditing Standards issued and updated from time to time by the Comptroller General of the United States. The 2007 Denver City Charter change, supported by the mayor, the council and me wrote into the charter language which charged the Denver Auditor’s Office to follow all standards from the Yellow Book in all audits performed. Tim O’Brien, former Colorado State Auditor and member of the City of Denver’s newly constituted independent audit committee opined that “having the Yellow Book in the Denver Charter is a very strong backup tool for any audit performed by the Denver Auditor’s Office.”

Chapter 3 of the Yellow Book covers general standards and the number one standard for all auditors, “whether government or public, must be free from personal, external, and organizational impairments to independence, and must avoid the appearance of such impairments of independence.”

Why do auditors have to fight for independence? As most Denverites know the Auditor’s Office is a nesting ground for future mayors. Many auditors have run for mayor while occupying the auditor’s chair. I am not. Now, I am not impuning that popular historic pattern of office climbing practiced by so many of my predecessors. And ambition, properly directed, is good. St. Paul says it’s good for young clerics to be ambitious seeking to be bishops. But the ambition we have to steer clear of is the extreme ambition of, let’s say, MacBeth whose ambition leapt over itself and fell on the other side.

Auditors must maintain independence “so that their opinions, findings, conclusions, judgments and recommendations” offered to management “will be impartial and viewed as impartial by objective third parties with knowledge of the relevant information.”

So an auditor running for mayor, whose ambition calls into question every action of an administration and its agency, in my view, may impair an auditor’s independence. This impairment is mentioned in the Yellow Book. It is called a “personal” impairment.

So in conclusion, in order for audit recommendations to be taken seriously, the source of the suggestions have to be free of “personal” impairments, external impairments and organizational impairments. We are sure glad we have the Yellow Book as a guide.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


The other day in the elevator at the Webb Building at 201 West Colfax two city workers got in the up elevator with me. It was clear to me that one of the employees was a recent hire. My humility was fortified as it was also clear that neither of my fellow city workers knew that I was Denver’s Auditor. The older and wiser worker, perhaps a supervisor, made clear her department’s attitude toward the Auditor’s Office.

“And remember whatever you do, never talk to anyone from the Auditor’s Office,” the new hire was informed. The words were delivered in an indignant tone. “What the Auditor’s office doesn’t know won’t then come back to bite us” was the attitude and tone of the comment.

I introduced myself to them as they got out on their floor. I gave them my card and told them they could trust me with any information they wished to share.

The path to the mountain top of trust is a long and arduous path for some of our employees and indeed the people themselves. I assure you I am doing everything I can to change that negative attitude toward trust. I believe it was Lao Tzu the ancient Chinese philosopher who said, “Without the trust of the people, the government can do nothing.”