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California’s Formidable State Auditor Retires After 21 Years

Elaine Howle was the longest-serving auditor in state history and known for her determination to be detailed and independent. The job posting for her replacement will close later this month.

(TNS) — California State Auditor Elaine Howle walked out of her office a final time last week, retiring following two decades at a post where her name became synonymous with "scathing audit."

But she's not done.

There are a handful of audits that the nonpartisan oversight agency will release to the public in 2022 that she is eagerly awaiting, although she'll be retired.

There is one examining how law enforcement agencies vet officers for potential affiliation with hate groups. There's another targeting the powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, following numerous employee complaints. And auditors are digging into the state's licensure and oversight of hospice care providers after Times investigation identified fraudulent practices in the booming end-of-life industry.

"We have some really important audits that we're doing right now, and for me, that is really hard to step away from," Howle, 63, said.

Howle's 21-year run makes her the longest-serving auditor in state history. Her willingness to aggressively dig into details; to publish reports regardless of the political implications; and to require proof, not promises, that agencies have made recommended changes earned her bipartisan praise rarely found in the state Capitol.

She chastised the state's Employment Development Department earlier this year, routinely called out local governments for poor financial management and torched leaders at the University of California for interfering with a 2017 audit of its finances.

"She's maintained the integrity of the agency," said Kurt Sjoberg, who was state auditor before Howle. "It's important that the position remains independent of politics. That independence is the only reason that the office is relied on."

It's that independence that lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Audit Committee said they will work to maintain as they cull candidates to three frontrunners when the auditor job posting closes later this month. Gov. Gavin Newsom will choose Howle's replacement from those three candidates — thereby appointing the person who will scrutinize his administration.

"This is going to be one of the most significant appointments that can be made," said Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R- Fresno), a member of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. "It has to be utterly free of even the appearance of political pressure."

Political wrangling has already begun, as Republican legislators have expressed concern that they will be shut out of the nomination process due to Democrats' supermajority in both houses. Republican lawmakers asked that they have equal representation to Democrats on a subcommittee screening candidates.

Democrats on the committee outnumber Republicans nine to five, giving them the ability to select the three candidates without Republican support.

"Government inefficiency, along with waste, fraud, and abuse, affect all Californians, so it only makes sense that this process should be open, transparent, and enjoy bipartisan cooperation from the start," wrote Republican leaders in both houses.

Assemblyman Rudy Salas (D- Bakersfield), who is chair of the joint audit committee, responded with a letter saying he looked forward to working with all members of the committee, regardless of their political affiliation, but he did not address Republicans' request for more voting power on the subcommittee.

Salas said California taxpayers benefit when there is an impartial voice like Howle's leading the watchdog agency.

"Whether it's the Orange County bankruptcy of the 1990s, the electricity crisis and Bay Bridge retrofit of the early 2000s or EDD this last year, she has been the trusted voice that the Legislature has relied upon," Salas said. "She has conducted her job with integrity, grit and the resolve needed to get to the tough answers the Legislature needs, and this is what we will be looking for in our next auditor as well."

The first woman appointed to the job, Howle held the position so long that lawmakers asked her for a recap on how the hiring process had worked when she was appointed in 2000 by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, she said.

"It's like, 'Oh, my God, what are we supposed to do here?'" Howle said with a laugh as she spoke with The Times in an interview.

She spoke of her job with deep reverence, though she conceded it was initially supposed to be a placeholder.

Howle had planned to work in college athletics after obtaining a degree in sports management, but there were few job vacancies, particularly for women, at the time. When she saw an opening in 1983 for an entry-level position at the office of the California auditor general, she applied out of necessity, she said. As a standout athlete who briefly played professional softball, Howle needed a paycheck while she figured out a route toward a career as a university athletic director.

But she came to find she enjoyed the ever-changing work at the auditor's office.

"And then I worked my way up," Howle said.

She said she loved the work so much that she was devastated when she was let go from her accidental career, along with everyone else in the office, in 1992. A state ballot measure that year was put before voters to make the auditor's office a separate constitutional entity with its own funding, exempt from legislative spending limits.

When the measure didn't pass, the Legislature had no backup plan to finance the agency. Pink slips were handed out, and the whistleblower hotline was unplugged. Howle remembered a somber office with job postings taped to the walls for the newly laid off.

"It was a very trying time to lay off so many people around Christmas time," said Sjoberg, who was then state auditor.

Less than a year later, in 1993, the Legislature voted to revive the office, renaming it from auditor general to state auditor and bringing Sjoberg back to lead the agency. One of the first people he wanted to rehire was Howle, who was working at the Employment Development Department, an agency that, decades later, was hit with one of her most scathing audits.

When Sjoberg left the post in 2000 to go into private practice, he was on the hiring committee making recommendations to lawmakers on who should replace him. Howle was the clear frontrunner, he said.

"She has always shown independence," he said.

State Sen. John Laird (D- Santa Cruz), vice-chair of the joint audit committee, said Howle stood up for "what she thought was right," which he said was evident when her office released a damning report in 2017 on the University of California Office of the President. That audit said top aides to then-UC President Janet Napolitano interfered with the work of state auditors by pressuring campuses to change negative responses to a confidential survey that asked them to rate services provided by university leadership.

Howle said she was forced to toss out the tampered survey results and alert the Legislature and the public.

"That was very stressful," Howle said. "I had to disclose what happened, and that was a bit nerve-wracking. I had never had to do that. My entire career as auditor, or even when I was a member of the audit team, I had never run into something like that."

The fallout from Howle's disclosure was a tidal wave of scorn directed at Napolitano, whom regents publicly admonished for authorizing the actions that led to her staff's interference with the auditor's investigation. Two aides resigned, the state passed a law creating a $5,000 fine for interfering with an audit, and then-Gov. Jerry Brown withheld $50 million from the university system until it fixed issues identified by Howle's office.

"The credibility of the [state auditor's] office was on the line, because it was like, 'Is she going overboard with her conclusions here? Or is this really as big of a problem as she's making it?'" Howle said. "And I think the end result was, 'Yeah, it was a big problem.'"

Discussing the UC audit is one of the only times Howle's emotions are apparent; her frustration and anger are palpable four years later. She is known for being forceful and concise when discussing audits, her thoughts summarized in fact-filled bullet points. She weaves through summaries of various reports on complex topics with ease, having read the audits numerous times before they were released.

It's not just the findings she focused on, but the readability of the reports, she said. Weeks before retiring, she was still assessing whether reports were too long, too dense or adequately illustrated with graphics. Even the headlines were meant to grab attention, such as one a year ago on the EED audit declaring that the agency's "Poor Planning and Ineffective Management Left It Unprepared to Assist Californians Unemployed by COVID‑19 Shutdowns."

Howle said she believes she will eventually look for part-time work — perhaps on one of the many public boards in California — knowing that she can't stay idle for long. She quickly dismisses any chance that she would enter politics. In the short term, she plans to travel the country with her wife and dogs.

"I can't shut it down completely; I will have to do something," Howle said. "What that something is? Right now, I don't know. I guess we'll see."

©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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