Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — It may be a down-ticket race, but the battle for state auditor is showing some pop.
Democrat incumbent Beth Wood said she deserves re-election on the strength of her vigorous campaign against wasteful spending and sloppy, expensive state contracts. Her Republican opponent, Debra Goldman, attacked Wood as a poor manager with a spotty record of investigating corruption who has carried water for Gov. Bev Perdue.
The auditor is the state’s top fiscal watchdog, empowered with investigative tools to ensure integrity in government operations and accounting.
Early voting for the Nov. 6 general election begins Oct. 18. Goldman, a member of the Wake County Board of Education running her first statewide campaign, trails Wood 39-36 percent, according to a survey of North Carolina voters taken July 5-8 by Public Policy Polling. They were tied 36-36 in June.
Still, Goldman believes that poll bodes well for her at this point in the election against an incumbent and with 25 percent of the electorate still undecided.
“It’s time for the link of arms between Bev Perdue and her cronies to be broken. Beth Wood traveled around campaigning with Bev Perdue and has been Bev Perdue’s extension through her entire term,” Goldman said. “The bottom line is where has she been for four years.”
Wood distances herself from partisan labels.
“We audit all the dollars, the red ones and the blue ones. It doesn’t matter who pays them,” Wood said.
“I say I run a nonpartisan office and that’s what we’re doing. No matter who you are, you leave your politics at the door,” she said. “We report whatever findings we have no matter whose feet it lays at. . . . We’ve done a great job of building that credibility since I came into office.”
Wood, who talks about growing up poor and possessing an average taxpayer’s understanding of the value of a dollar, said when she came into office the state was facing a $4.8 billion shortfall in its budget.
“My staff and I just rallied around and decided we had to identify wasteful, inefficient spending. So we looked at projects across multiple state agencies and problems that might be systemic to state government,” she said.
They weren’t targeting “$1 million here or there but tens of millions of dollars,” she said. “We’ve identified over $300 million in wasteful spending through poor contracting practices in the state of North Carolina, poor contract monitoring,” and people not being held accountable for tax money they are spending.
In the past, vendors “took us to the cleaners” because of poor contract writing and lack of vigilance, Wood said.
For example, she said, her office revealed that the state contract with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina barred the state from auditing an administrative fee it was charging. The arrangement also kept contract terms confidential, which Wood argued violates state law.
“The state of North Carolina in 2007-2008 started losing $12 million a month on the state health plan and nobody knew about it, saw it, recognized it until August of 2008. It cost the state of North Carolina over $100 million,” Wood said.
Another poorly written and monitored contract, with Affiliated Computer Systems, to upgrade the state’s 1980s Medicaid computer system, resulted in an additional $20 million buyout after the company failed to meet expectations and deadlines on its $171 million contract, she said.
Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, through which state employees received discounts on services, did not notify the state when rates escalated. No one in state government was paying attention to demand higher discounts guaranteed in the contract, which Wood said, cost the state $1.3 million.
“I’ve taken this information before the General Assembly,” Wood said. “We got accomplishment after accomplishment as far as bills that have been implemented to stop this wasteful spending.” The office implemented a policy to ensure corrective action plans are being implemented and carried out properly.
“I think if you would ask the members of the General Assembly you might hear a different opinion” on whether lawmakers are satisfied with Wood’s results, Goldman said.
Goldman also questions how aggressive Wood has been, saying waste, fraud, abuse, corruption, and cronyism are prevalent in state government.
“I have a whole laundry list” of items to investigate if elected, Goldman said. She declined to name them, saying she’s in a heated election and does not want to give Wood last-minute scandals to announce that the auditor has failed to uncover in four years on the job.
Goldman rejects Wood’s contention that she has exposed hundreds of millions of dollars in waste.
“I’d love to see an accounting of that,” Goldman said. Wood “has neither the knowledge nor the experience nor the proof of that. I’d like to see some real transparency coming out of that office.”
For her part, Wood said her professional training differentiates her from her opponent.
“I am a CPA and have been for the last 25 years. I have audited cities, counties, and large not-for-profits,” Wood said. “My opponent doesn’t have a CPA license. I’ve taught CPAs across the nation” in government accounting.
“I understand every report that goes out of this office, and if you don’t have the credentials, the education a CPA has, if you didn’t do tax returns, if you didn’t do financial planning,” you are not equipped for the office, Wood said.
“There is nothing in the North Carolina state constitution that even suggests a CPA is required for this position. This is not a tax accountant’s position,” Goldman responded.
“In fact, what the process needs is someone with business management experience” like she has had in rooting out inefficient spending in Wake County schools, Goldman said. “This is a position for a business manager.”
While Wood touts job training initiatives she has put into operation and how her office has rallied together in the face of budget-induced employee cutbacks, Goldman contends employees are disgruntled under Wood’s leadership.
“I will bring a very different type of leadership to the state auditor’s office, one that will showcase the employees’ abilities in that office, one that will showcase the office in a way that the audits that are performed will be shared in a truly transparent fashion,” Goldman said.
“It is an investigatory position and should be viewed as such. I think there are some fine people working in that office and they need not to be worried about the politics they are worried about now. They need to be focused and encouraged in their jobs,” Goldman said.
Wood defended her supervisory practices.
“These auditors, if they see their work taken seriously and somebody doing something with it, when they know their work is being used to make a difference in how government operates, it makes a difference” in how well they do their jobs, Wood said. “My record appeals to everybody.”
Dan E. Way is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.