Ex-Politician Undertakes Research Project; Media Outlet Swoons

Olsen’s treasure trove. (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

Last week, VTDigger posted a curiously lopsided story that trumpeted the intention of former state lawmaker Oliver Olsen to “audit the auditor.”

That would be state auditor Doug Hoffer, who seems to have gotten deeply under Olsen’s skin. The Digger piece went on and on about Olsen’s dim view of Hoffer’s work, cited the views of lawmakers with similar misgivings, and… um… barely quoted Hoffer at all. Nor did it include comments from the many lawmakers who have think highly of Hoffer. It kind of reads like a hit job.

There are two quotations from Hoffer, both apparently taken from emails. In fact, I asked Hoffer if he’d been interviewed by the reporter. “We had no phone conversations at all,” he said. “I had no chance to respond to the allegations [by Olsen].”

Well, that’s Journalism 101, isn’t it? A former editor of mine used to hammer repeatedly on the obligation of reporters to talk to everyone mentioned in a story. That doesn’t seem to be the standard at Digger.

So the article was a little malpractice-y. What about the substance?

Olsen attacks Hoffer on a few fronts, none central to the credibility of the auditor’s work. He questions, as the story says, “Hoffer’s handling of confidential data” for a report on the Vermont Employment Growth Initiative, which offers grants for worker training. Olsen also says that Hoffer failed to adhere “to the standards he demands in other state agencies,” which seems awfully vague. Late last month, he sent a letter to then-incoming House Speaker Jill Krowinski saying that he’s still working on his probe, but that he has already found “a number of problems with the auditor’s work that I hope to bring to the Legislature’s attention in the new biennium.”

Now, Hoffer is a known critic of VEGI and other state programs in which incentives are offered in order to spur private-sector activity that would not happen otherwise. The problem is, it’s almost impossible to prove that. In fact, businesses don’t really try, and the Vermont Economic Progress Council doesn’t require any proof.

In the Digger story, this is presented as evidence of Hoffer’s bias.

Here’s the thing. Is it bias, or is it a reasoned judgment based on years of work and the examination of the evidence? Is it wrong to expect a taxpayer-funded program to provide evidence that it works?

Here’s the other thing. State Auditor is an elected position for which candidates are nominated by political parties. The office itself, by design, has a political dimension. If Hoffer brings his own views to bear, and he can support his assertions with evidence, there’s nothing wrong with what he does.

Besides, Hoffer is accountable to the voters every two years. He has just begun his fourth term in office. Every time he’s come up for re-election, he’s won in a landslide. A real landslide, not one of Donald Trump’s imaginary ones.

In 2020, Hoffer faced a primary challenge from Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, a CPA by trade who wanted to operate the office strictly as an accountant. She got mollywhopped in the primary.

To judge by the election results, I’d say the people of Vermont approve of the way Hoffer does his job. There’s certainly no evidence of any disaffection.

So, Olsen is trying to stir up some trouble. And he’s making some progress. On January 8, the day after the Digger story was posted, VEPC held a special meeting that centered on “Pertinent findings from review provided by Oliver Olsen,” and “Discussion of how the Council should most appropriately respond.”

Boy, he got a seat at the table in a hurry. I guess VEPC was eager to hear his critique, even though — as Olsen said himself — it’s still a work in progress.

Reps. Janet Ancel and Emilie Kornheiser introduced a bill last year that would impose new transparency standards on the VEGI program. It didn’t pass (thanks, pandemic), but they’re going to try again this year. VEPC seems to be using Olsen as a ramrod to fight against the legislation.

Olsen is devoting a huge amount of time to this enterprise. In the past month, he has made 18 separate inquiries with the auditor’s office, including 14 public records requests. Four of those PRRs were filed on Christmas Eve. There’s nothing wrong with PRR’s, but that seems excessive — almost punitive, in fact.

What prompted this avalanche? Well, coincidence or not, it began around the time that Hoffer published the first of two audits of approved independent schools (like Burr and Burton and St. Johnsbury Academy), which receive public Education Fund payments for each student enrolled.

Olsen is a devoted champion of the independents, and of private schools in general. So much so, that when he was appointed in 2018 by Gov. Scott to the state board of education, that was Digger’s headline: “Oliver Olsen Appointed to Education Board He Once Antagonized.”

I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Is Olsen trying to discredit Hoffer in order to blunt the impact of the independent schools audit? I can’t prove it, but it seems likely.

And Digger, for its part, seems to be on board with Olsen’s efforts.

Postscript. In case you were wondering, no, I didn’t reach out to Olsen for comment. On this particular popstand, I’m a commentator/analyst, not a journalist. And I’m doing this for free, so I march to the beat of my own drum.

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