Retiring State Auditor Elaine Howle Is a Tough Act to Follow
California State Auditor Elaine Howle will retire at the end of 2021. For more than 20 years, Howle was relentless at tracking down waste, fraud and abuse in state government.
In 2017, the state auditor revealed that University of California president Janet Napolitano, maintained a hidden slush fund of $175 million, at a time when the UC was raising tuition and demanding more money from the state. As Howle wondered, “why did we need to increase tuition if the Office of the President has $175 million in reserve that nobody knew about?”
Howle’s discovery came despite efforts to inhibit her work by revising surveys sent to the 10 UC campuses. Howle wanted to examine services under the office of the president and “determine whether there are places to streamline and eliminate costs.” As the auditor discovered, “we couldn’t get there.” Staffing levels in the Office of the President, Howle documented, increased more than 11 percent in six years and exceeded comparable university systems such as the University of Texas.
Howle also rode herd on the state’s vaunted “bullet train,” which carries no passenters but maintains a Sacramento headquarters and three regional offices. The High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) took down thousands of pages of public records from its website, but Howle was able to uncover conflicts of interest with HSRA and contractors. The auditor titled her report California High-Speed Rail Authority: Its Flawed Decision Making and Poor Contract Management Have Contributed to Billions in Cost Overruns and Delays in the System’s Construction.
More recently, Howle called out some $11 billion in fraud at the state Employment Development Department. As the title of Howle’s audit explained, EDD’s Poor Planning and Ineffective Management Left it Unprepared to Assist Californians Unemployed by COVID-19 Shutdowns.
Aware of Howle’s investigative prowess, state politicians have kept her away from state agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles. When the DMV was forcing Californians into long lines, as employees slept on the job, Gov. Jerry Brown tasked his own Department of Finance to audit the agency. That pleased the Service Employees International Union, which opposed an independent audit, and which refers to the state capitol as “our house.”
After obstruction by Janet Napolitano, Howle doubted whether the UC “will make a genuine effort to change.” When the auditor uncovered the $175 million slush fund, UC students called for Napolitano’s resignation and issued a statement reading: “We believe that the administration is incapable of holding itself accountable.”
That could easily apply to the entire state of California. The next state auditor has a tough act to follow.