A few days ago, I wrote about two performance audits conducted by Auditor Doug Hoffer concerning Vermont’s approved independent schools. His findings, in brief: they are growing and consuming more Education Fund dollars, and state oversight is lax in a number of important ways. (The two reports are available by way of the Auditor’s website, specifically this page.)
I mentioned in passing that the two audits had gotten very little coverage in the media. The second one went almost completely under the radar; the Big Three of Vermont media (VTDigger, Seven Days, VPR) didn’t cover it at all.
It’s part of a pattern; Hoffer’s audits and reports get perfunctory coverage at best. But this year it took a turn for the worse. At the same time that major media outlets were giving scant attention to Hoffer’s actual work, they were giving plenty of space to Oliver Olsen, a relentless Hoffer critic (and longtime supporter of AIS’s).
For those just joining us, in December and early January Olsen inundated the auditor’s office with requests for records and information — a total of 18 inquiries, four of them filed on Christmas Eve. At the time, Olsen hinted at a deep expose of serious flaws in Hoffer’s work. In a letter to House and Senate leadership, he wrote “My review, which is not yet complete, has identified a number of problems with the auditor’s work that I hope to bring to the Legislature’s attention in the new biennium.”
What have we gotten from Olsen since then? A wet fart. Have the breathless media covered his failure to deliver? Not on your life.
Olsen has failed to produce the “number of problems” he promised to send to the Legislature. And he’s apparently stopped with all the public records requests.
At the time, when he was promising big things down the road Mike LIndell-style, Olsen did describe a couple of issues with Hoffer. Both seemed more like personal disagreements than actual scandal. For example, he took issue with Hoffer’s close attention to business incentive programs, which are dearly beloved by Gov. Phil Scott and the Legislature.
Here’s the thing. Auditor is an elective office and at least partly political by nature. Of course the auditor’s views are going to inform his work. If a conservative Republican held the office, I’m sure more time would be spent on taxation and human services.
But a conservative Republican is NOT the auditor. The Progressive/Democrat Hoffer is. And he keeps getting re-elected by lopsided margins. Last year, Democratic Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan opposed him in the Democratic primary because he wasn’t purely an accountant. And she got walloped at the ballot box. The voters made their choice. Again.
Olsen did produce one specific criticism: that Hoffer overstepped his bounds in seeking certain information from the Vermont Economic Progress Council, which oversees many of the incentive programs. His criticism prompted a quick and positive response from VEPC, which invited him to present his argument at one of its meetings.
Well, here’s an update. The Attorney General’s Office has determined that Olsen was wrong and Hoffer was right. Hoffer has the authority to seek the VEPC records.
Olsen also criticized Hoffer’s work on health care issues. In a January 19 letter to legislative leaders, Hoffer effectively rebutted those claims.
Olsen also said that some of Hoffer’s work fell short of professional standards. But he was confusing one part of Hoffer’s work with another. When Hoffer does an actual audit, he abides by the standards of the profession. That’s not the case for his office’s occasional reports. Those are not audits, and the professional standards don’t apply.
Should Hoffer do reports as well as audits? That’s a choice he is allowed to make. The office has a few defined duties, but is otherwise meant to be an independent check on state government. Auditors have quite a bit of discretion in how they do their jobs.
Hoffer has done some good, if inconvenient, work. I don’t know why he gets short shrift from the media; maybe he pissed in someone’s cornflakes. Or maybe it’s because he refrains from exaggerating his findings or making the kinds of attacks that the media find compelling. (See: Olsen, Oliver.) Hoffer sticks to the facts, which seem unappealingly dry even if they do inform public discourse.
In my opinion, Doug Hoffer has done a fine job. His experience and his views do inform his work, but they don’t overwhelm the work. He’s been a great, and sadly underused, resource for policymakers. If you disagree with him or his performance, then get out there and beat him at the ballot box. Don’t make wild criticisms that you can’t back up.