Just Plain Wong

A noisy but vague lawmaker gets his wayauditor general Norton quits after 23 years

Most Arizonans have never heard of Doug Norton, but we all owe him our thanks.
For more than two decades, Norton has served us as state auditor general, watching over many facets of government in Arizona: state agencies, counties, universities and community colleges. This is a tremendous task. Norton had charge of 150 auditors and a budget of $10 million this year.

In Arizona, government is often run like a swap meet. As the guy who keeps tabs, Doug Norton knows that all too well. Over the years he's documented countless cases of malfeasance, abuses of power and shoddy services in areas ranging from mental health care to air and water quality to protection of the state's children.

The auditor general's office has always stood out as a shining star among the dim-bulb agencies it has had to monitor. My colleagues and I cherish auditor general reports--always apolitical, always concise and complete, a journalist's Cliffs Notes to breakdowns in the machinations of state government.

We're not alone in our reverence. In the past few years, Norton and the Arizona auditor general's office have twice received top honors from a national auditors organization. Norton's office gets high marks from its peers in other states, who regularly audit their fellow auditors. No one I've spoken to can remember any warranted criticism of Norton's work over the past 23 years--an amazing feat for a guy who makes his living criticizing others.

And the thanks Norton gets for 23 years of quiet, resolute service?
A kick in the head from the Arizona Legislature.
For the past three years, the Legislature has failed to renew Norton's five-year contract, which came due in 1997. He's served month-to-month, waiting to be unceremoniously removed from office and failing to get an answer as to why his services are no longer desired.

Well, Arizona, you won't have Doug Norton to kick around anymore. He finally resigned; his last day will be June 29.

He'll leave office wondering what he did wrong.

Doug Norton did nothing wrong. If anything, he probably did his job too well.

He is the victim of a power-hungry legislator whose actions would never pass a perfunctory review by the office he condemns.

The legislator is Representative Barry Wong, a Phoenix Republican who champions small-business interests and fiscal conservatism. He mentions several times that he has a background in accounting, which apparently makes him more qualified than most to pass judgment on the auditor general. I've always found Wong to be a reasonable, levelheaded lawmaker, but his actions toward Doug Norton are nonsensical.

Here's some background. The state auditor general serves at the pleasure of the Legislature, specifically the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC). In 1997, when Norton's five-year contract came due, two junior auditors quit the office in disgust, claiming that they were forced to change details in an audit of the state parks department.

At the time, then-representative Randall Gnant, a Scottsdale Republican (he's now a state senator), chaired JLAC. He took the appropriate action. Gnant held off on introducing a resolution to renew Norton's contract while the junior auditors' charges were investigated. Norton's office was told to conduct an internal investigation, and, because he didn't feel that investigation alone was sufficient, Gnant--whose professional background includes years as a corporate auditor--conducted his own investigation.

In October 1997, Gnant held a press conference to release his findings. He absolved Norton and his office of any wrongdoing, concluding that the junior auditors had simply overreacted to a supervisor's differing opinion.

Norton was cleared--or so he thought. Then Barry Wong became the new chairman of JLAC, and embarked on a wild power trip. In the spring of 1998, JLAC voted to renew Norton's contract, but Wong blocked a vote on the renewal in the Legislature. He says he was dissatisfied with Gnant's conclusions. Instead, Wong decided it was time for a completely independent audit of the state auditor general's office.

He explains: "From the first year that I served in the Legislature, I always asked, 'Who audits the auditor general?' And I never got a good response. And now, since I began serving on the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, I thought, 'Well, it's time that we put a little more scrutiny there.'"

And so, Wong tells me proudly, he made sure that $30,000 was appropriated for an independent audit by the National Council of State Legislatures.

"I thought, 'I'm not going to let this rest, because it's got to be an independent review!'" Wong says.

(Wong talks as though this was his original, bright idea, but Gnant tells me it was already routine procedure; independent, outside audits of the auditor general are performed every three or four years.)

"I felt that until we had a clear report that determines whether the agency's performing efficiently and adequately, it would be remiss of us to just rubber stamp every contract renewal," Wong says.

Okay. Well, guess what? The national, independent, $30,000, 70-page audit was released last month, and it contains nothing that suggests Norton is not doing his job. Quite the contrary.

I got dizzy reading the methodology for the exhaustive report. As you might expect, the national auditors reviewed Arizona's audit reports and read over previous peer reviews, but they also spent a lot of time talking to people here in the state. They personally interviewed members of JLAC and other legislators, 10 legislative staffers, former auditor general staffers and 50 current auditor general staffers. In addition, the national auditors sent written surveys to 89 legislators and 30 legislative staffers, as well as the financial officers of Arizona's cities, towns, counties, school districts, justice of the peace courts, charter schools, community college districts and all auditor general employees.

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