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Illinois’ watchdog

In Auditor General William Holland’s world, there is no room for partisan politics

by Adriana Colindres

Illinois Auditor General William Holland, recently appointed to an unprecedented third 10-year term in that office, occasionally gets invited to speak to college accounting classes. When he does, the students are in for a surprise.

Holland typically opens by telling his audience that he isn’t a trained auditor and that he has no auditing experience. Next, he adds: “You’re thinking, then, I must be an accountant. I’m here to tell you I am NOT an accountant.”

He follows up by admitting he has never even taken an accounting class. At that point, Holland says, the students “are kind of looking at me, like, ‘Hmm, not an auditor, not an accountant, never had an accounting class.’ Then you’ve got the fallback position, which is, ‘Oh, you must be a lawyer.’”

“I say, ‘You’re all thinking I must be a lawyer.’ I see the heads nod, and I say: ‘I’m not a lawyer. Now you’re going to ask the question: How did you get this job?’”

The answer — or at least a crucial part of it — is his broad-based knowledge of Illinois state government.

Before starting as auditor general in August 1992, Holland spent almost 10 years as chief of staff for then-Illinois Senate President Philip Rock, an Oak Park Democrat. Holland also had directed the General Assembly’s Washington, D.C., office for three years and worked in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1974 to 1980, winding up his tenure there as head of the Democrats’ appropriations staff.

“That exposure to all of state government was very helpful and very useful to me when I began my career as the auditor general,” says Holland, who turns 61 in November. “I am surrounded by immensely talented accountants and auditors and people with a lot of experience. I’ve got the high-level view. They bring in the detail, and it’s a pretty good mix.”

A key element to the success of the auditor general’s office, Holland says, is what he calls “continuity of management.” For example, the individuals who head the office’s three divisions — financial and compliance, performance, and information services — all worked for the previous auditor general, Robert Cronson. Several other employees have worked in the office for most or all of Holland’s time there. They include Deputy Auditor General John Kunzeman, a former appropriations director for Illinois Senate Republicans.

After more than 20 years as auditor general, Holland has not grown weary of the work. Far from it.

“I am in the delightful position that every day when I get up, I like coming to work,” he says. “It was that way on August 2nd of 1992, and it’s that way today.

“I work with good people,” he adds. “I enjoy the challenge. The work is fun. Can’t say that very often, right?”

Some people might view the work as monotonous, Holland acknowledges.

“Auditors come in and they go through the same process, and every year or every two years, they audit the same old stuff. But you know what? Every year, we find some challenges, and we get some new issues, and there are new people. It makes it intriguing.”

The Office of Auditor General, as it presently exists, was created in the 1970 Illinois Constitution — specifically, Article VIII, Section 3. That section consists of just two paragraphs. The first spells out that the General Assembly, by a three-fifths vote of the members elected to each chamber, appoints an auditor general to a 10-year term and “may remove him for cause by a similar vote.” The second paragraph describes the auditor general’s duties: auditing the state’s public funds, making additional reports and investigations as directed by the General Assembly, and reporting findings and recommendations to the General Assembly and the governor.

The Illinois State Auditing Act, contained within the Illinois Compiled Statutes, sets forth the auditor general’s duties in greater detail.

The first person to serve as auditor general under the provisions of the 1970 Illinois Constitution was Cronson, who held the post from 1974 to 1991. He died in July. Holland praises Cronson for “the professionalism that he brought and instituted” in the office.

Holland, who earns about $149,000 a year, leads an office with a staff of about 95 and a budget exceeding $29 million, the bulk of which goes to outside public accounting firms that Holland hires to conduct audits.

Holland’s first 10-year appointment as auditor general in 1992 didn’t come easily. Initially, Senate Republicans were skeptical that the longtime Democrat would be a good fit for the job. They later agreed to support him.

Despite his years as a staff member for Senate and House Democrats, Holland says he had no trouble adopting a nonpolitical approach when he became auditor general: “I made that transition overnight.”

“You can like politics without having to be partisan,” adds Holland, who no longer votes in party primary elections. “I like the political world, and I’m a keen observer of it. But I also understand the responsibilities of this office, and this office demands that there be no politics.”

To underscore the point, Holland meets with every new employee in his office, describing his own past in politics and government.

“I make sure there’s an understanding. I say, ‘Look, I don’t care if you’re a Democrat, a Republican, a Communist, a Libertarian, a Tea Partier. Doesn’t make any difference to me. Be what you want to be. Just don’t bring it into this office.’

‘“I think it’s important to have a good understanding of the political world, just that there’s no role for me in that,” he adds. “There’s no role for me to be a partisan one way or the other, nor should there be. I view myself more in the ‘umpire’ role.”

All four of the General Assembly’s caucus leaders agree that Holland has performed exceptionally as auditor general and that his third term is well-deserved. No one in the Illinois Senate or House of Representatives voted against his reappointment when the matter came up during the 2012 spring legislative session.

“To do the job he does and not make any enemies for a long period of time is really pretty impressive,” says Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat who has served in the Illinois Senate since 1991 and who served in the House from 1979 to 1991. “He’s certainly somebody of integrity, no question about it.”

“He and his office do an excellent job,” adds House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego. “They’re effective and thorough and nonpartisan. It has been just a pleasure to work with his office.”

Holland already was well into his first term as state auditor general when Christine Radogno of Lemont, now the Senate Republican leader, joined the Senate in 1997. She says she was surprised to learn later about Holland’s previous work as chief of staff to Rock.

“He seemed so nonpartisan and even-handed to me that I couldn’t imagine him in that partisan position,” she says.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat who has served in the House since 1971, says he believes Rock “was not overly partisan” as Senate president. “He generally carried a reputation of being a statesman.”

In any event, Madigan says, Holland has not displayed partisanship as auditor general. “The fact that he has been appointed three times attests to that.”

Holland’s ability to play “umpire” became especially evident when Democrat Rod Blagojevich, now in prison on corruption charges, was Illinois governor. Audits conducted by Holland’s office provided some of the first tangible evidence that something wasn’t quite right in the Blagojevich administration.

“They were shocking when we read them,” Radogno says of the audits.

“Bill Holland was very outspoken in his audits,” adds Cullerton. “He told it like it was.”

An audit of the Department of Central Management Services (CMS), released in April 2005, marked “the beginning of where we saw problems,” Holland says. That audit covered a two-year period ending in June 2004, which included the final six months or so of Republican George Ryan’s tenure as governor and the early part of the Blagojevich administration.

As Illinois Issues reported at the time, the audit found that CMS “allowed firms to work without contracts, bill taxpayers half a million dollars in questionable expenses and even help establish bid criteria for contracts they later won.”

“A surplus of bad procurement practices were taking place,” Holland says now. “It was then that we began to realize there were some serious problems.”

The way that Blagojevich administration officials responded to the shortcomings uncovered in the audit raised “real red flags,” he says.

“They should have looked at it and said: ‘Yeah, you’re right. We made a mistake.’ Instead, they objected to every single finding that we had,” Holland says. “When that happened, I knew, boy, something is really amiss here.

“Their objections were so serious they caused me to do something I had never done before, which was to have a press conference,” he adds. “I knew that these guys were going to come after me and my office and my auditors. It was wrong.”

A few years later, in early 2009, Holland was among the witnesses at Blagojevich’s impeachment trial in the Illinois Senate. He testified about the CMS audit and other improprieties in Blagojevich-run state agencies. The Senate voted for impeachment.

The present-day auditor general’s office is an outgrowth of a different scandal — this one from the 1950s. That’s when Orville Hodge, the state’s elected auditor of public accounts, embezzled more than $1 million and went to prison.

The scandal led to several changes in state government, including the separation of the comptroller’s and treasurer’s offices and the creation of the auditor general’s office. Initially, the auditor general was appointed by the governor. But delegates at the 1970 Constitutional Convention decided to place the auditor general’s office under the General Assembly’s purview instead.

Madigan was one of those convention delegates.

“We went to great lengths to put in a system of checks and balances,” he says. “It was a matter of very serious debate at the convention because of the scandal of Orville Hodge. It was something that was on everybody’s mind.”

By virtue of his decades in government, Holland has crossed paths with many memorable people, including two he especially admires: Rock and the late state Sen. Vince Demuzio, a Carlinville Democrat.

“Phil Rock was a very influential person in my life,” says Holland. “At times, when I’m trying to figure out what to do on a particular issue, I will sit down and reflect, and I will say to myself, ‘What would Phil Rock do now?’ It always comes to one key word: He would be fair. Whether it was good for him or bad for him, he would be fair. That’s my ultimate fallback position: When in doubt, be fair.”

Demuzio was shrewd and had a talent for lacing together humor and good public policy, Holland says. “He had a great sense of government and politics, and he had a great deal of respect for the General Assembly.”

It’s clear that Holland feels the same way about the General Assembly and the rest of state government.

When he eventually steps down as auditor general, he will leave as the person who has held the post the longest. Asked where he sees the auditor general’s office heading after that, he answers:

“The office gets its strength from two documents, the Illinois Constitution and the Illinois State Auditing Act. Whoever follows after me — and there will be somebody — will begin with Article VIII, Section 3 of the Illinois Constitution and the Illinois State Auditing Act, and they will be great resources for (the next auditor general) to build on.”

Adriana Colindres is a feature writer at Knox College in Galesburg and a former Illinois Statehouse reporter.

Illinois Issues, September 2012

 

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Auditor General William HollandWilliam Holland was first appointed as auditor general in 1992.
Photograph by Lane Christiansen

The types of audit

Audits conducted by Auditor General William Holland’s office fall into different categories:

  • Financial audits and compliance examinations. Required under state law, they take place on a regular basis, examining how public funds are used and providing agencies with specific recommendations to ensure the agencies comply with the law and other pertinent regulations.
  • Performance audits. Conducted at the request of lawmakers, these audits may involve reviewing specific state programs, functions, and activities — whatever lawmakers ask for when they pass the appropriate legislative resolution or law.
  • Information systems (IS) audits. Conducted on the state’s computer networks, these audits evaluate whether proper procedures are in place to manage and protect the state’s financial and confidential data.

Audits are released to state officials, including lawmakers and the governor, as well as to the public. Released audits undergo review by the Legislative Audit Commission, a bipartisan panel of House and Senate members. Officials from audited agencies have the opportunity to review audit findings with the panel and discuss plans for making improvements aimed at addressing any shortcomings.

SOURCE: Auditor General's website