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Campaign 2010 | The race for auditor

Wanted: job as top watchdog

Connaughton, Bump take aim

By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / October 25, 2010

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For the first time in nearly a quarter century, voters next week will elect a new state auditor — quite possibly the most obscure of statewide offices. But perhaps it should come as no surprise that a lively contest is underway for the post.

The auditor is the one who gets to dig in with a scalpel to see if government agencies and programs are being run effectively or whether they are inefficient and wasteful as so many critics claim. The auditor decides whether taxpayers’ money is being spent appropriately and recommends ways to tighten programs if it’s not.

Republican Mary Z. Connaughton, a former member of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board, is vying with Democrat Suzanne M. Bump, a former state labor secretary and legislator, for the office A. Joseph DeNucci has held since 1987. A poll published in yesterday’s Globe suggests the race is a dead heat.

“This is the second most important position in state government,’’ said Connaughton, who called the auditor the public’s “eyes on Beacon Hill.’’

“People get it. They want to make sure their money is being spent well,’’ she said. “People are just disheartened and I think the auditor’s office can help restore honor and trust in state government and it must be held by someone who’s going to be effective and independent.’’

Connaughton, 50, of Framingham, stresses her credentials as a real-world accountant to make the case that she’s the best candidate for the job. A partner in a business development firm, Connaughton previously worked as a chief financial officer of the Massachusetts State Lottery and was an unsuccessful candidate for state representative in 2004.

“I have a track record of being independent on the turnpike board, and as a CPA, I’m bound to a higher standard of independence,’’ Connaughton said. “This job can’t be political. It has to be professional.’’

But as the Globe recently reported, Connaughton herself faced a stinging audit for her work at the lottery. A 1997 audit of the lottery accused officials of poor accounting practices that violated state law and cost the state more than $1.6 million in lost revenue. Connaughton was in charge of the agency’s financial operations for most of the period of the audit — July 1, 1994, to June 30, 1996 — and was responsible for answering the auditors’ concerns. The audit also noted that the agency refused to cooperate and turn over requested documents.

Bump represented Braintree in the state House of Representatives for four terms, before becoming a lobbyist and starting her own law firm. She served as Governor Deval Patrick’s labor secretary from 2007 until late last year. While her opponent derided her recently as “Miss Beacon Hill,’’ Bump countered that she used her years in public office to challenge the powers that be, and lost her seat in the House after sponsoring a measure overhauling workers’ compensation.

“If I’m willing to put my own career on the line, do you think I’m going to care about protecting anybody else on Beacon Hill?’’ Bump said in a recent debate hosted by WBZ’s Jon Keller. Bump said she revamped a labor agency that was left in “complete dysfunction’’ after 16 years of Republican administrations on Beacon Hill and that she would bring that kind of leadership to the office of state auditor.

“I have a vision and I have leadership qualities that frankly, you lack,’’ Bump told Connaughton during the WBZ debate.

But Bump had some accounting to do of her own, after the Globe reported she was receiving tax breaks for primary residences in both Great Barrington and South Boston. Bump argued she was entitled to both tax breaks, because one was her “primary’’ residence and the other her “principal’’ residence. After the report, however, she asked Boston assessors to review her eligibility for the exemption, which they ultimately found unwarranted. She repaid the city $5,875.05.

Bump said she would bring to the job a history of effective leadership, fixing broken systems and demanding accountability from state agencies.

“My goal in seeking this office is to make government work better,’’ Bump said. “That means taking the auditor’s office beyond simple financial accounting and . . . focus on what we’re getting from government, how well is government meeting our needs, spending our dollars, what do we do to make it better.’’

As part of her platform, Bump calls for auditing the Legislature, whose spending is not now screened by the auditor’s office. But the Legislature would have to pass a law allowing itself to be audited— a tall order for a political entity. Bump said that pushing the measure through requires an auditor “who is able to articulate an agenda for the office, that has credibility.’’

“It’s a matter of helping to build a public consensus around it, highlighting the rational reasons for it, the public good that can come of it, the good will and the enhancement to the Legislature’s credibility,’’ Bump said. “I think they’re keenly aware of how the public views them and could be persuaded to see this as an opportunity to increase public confidence.’’

Connaughton also called for auditing the Legislature; she would even call for an independent audit of the auditor’s office.

“No area should be exempt — not the auditor’s office, not the Legislature, nobody,’’ Connaughton said.

If elected auditor, Connaughton said, she would put pressure on political power brokers in much the way she did as an outspoken member of the board of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. Connaughton claimed media attention as a knowledgeable but opinionated dissenter on the board who fought for fairness for Turnpike tollpayers but often made things difficult for the board and the governor.

“I want public officials, elected officials, to think when they’re making new policies: Is this Connaughton-proof?’’ she said. “Letting them know that there is going to be ramifications, accountability, to have the right things done in the first place.’’

She also wants her office to produce independent financial assessments of major legislation as it is being reviewed, to help the public understand the actual cost and benefits of a bill. Citing estimates of the cost of the state’s health care reform law, she said, “Someone’s got to be accountable for that.’’

Also running is Green-Rainbow candidate Nathanael Fortune of Whately, an associate professor of physics at Smith College.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com.