SALEM — A public accusation by a gubernatorial staffer that the secretary of state’s audits are politically motivated has created a dustup between Oregon’s two top offices, public records show.
Top advisers from each office now plan to meet in person to discuss their working relationship.
Allegations of partisanship have popped up on occasion since Oregon’s Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson took office a little over a year ago.
But the most recent flare-up began last week after Richardson’s office released a lengthy and critical audit of the state’s foster care system. Over a year’s worth of work, auditors found numerous problems at Oregon’s Department of Human Services that could put kids’ safety at risk.
After the audit came out, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Kate Brown told the Salem Statesman Journal that Richardson’s audits “are just about politics.”
The spokesman, Chris Pair, also told the newspaper that the governor’s office had already identified the issues raised by the audit and that the department had begun addressing most of the auditors’ recommendations.
Problems in the state’s foster care system are longstanding and well-documented.
In 2016, outside consultants Brown hired the year before to dig into child safety issues found that the child welfare system needed a culture change and other “foundational” shifts.
Last week’s audit reinforced those outside findings and said the Department of Human Services still hadn’t made progress.
Pair’s comments were not well-received by Kip Memmott, the state’s audit director, records show.
Their correspondence was released to the EO Media Group/Pamplin Media Group Capital Bureau through a public records request.
Memmott told Berri Leslie and Gina Zejdlik, Brown’s deputy chiefs of staff, in an email that he was “disappointed” by Pair’s statement, which the audit director claimed was “impugning the professionalism of our audit staff.”
Memmott also said that the most recent audit of the foster care system was scheduled under the administration of prior Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins, a Democrat who was appointed to fill the role after Brown left that office to become governor after the resignation of Gov. John Kitzhaber.
The next day, Zejdlik asked Memmott for a meeting.
In a follow-up email Friday — written after she was made aware that the emails would imminently be public due to the Capital Bureau’s records request — Zejdlik also raised concerns about the secretary’s press conferences on audits and closed-door meetings with legislators.
“While we know the auditors are not politicizing audits, it would be naive to underestimate the extent to which audits can be used as political tools,” Zejdlik wrote, citing a recent audit of the Oregon Health Authority.
When that audit came out in November, Richardson said in a public statement that “misfeasance and obfuscation” by the health authority meant the agency faced “tough questions about its credibility and its ability to appropriately spend the money it is provided.”
Democrats objected, saying that Richardson was using state resources to campaign for an election outcome — in that case, Measure 101, the health care funding ballot measure that went before voters in January.
And now the governor’s office is also raising questions about how Richardson’s office has handled other issues under his leadership.
For example, they doubt a public preview of the Oregon Health Authority audit Richardson sent out in May was in compliance with government auditing standards. They also say they weren’t notified until late in the process that the governor’s office would be asked to officially respond to a recent audit of the state’s Emergency Management office.
Richardson’s chief of staff, Deb Royal, denied that Richardson was politicizing the audits.
“To keep findings like these on a shelf to collect dust is not why Dennis Richardson ran for secretary of state,” Royal said in a written statement. “He will publicize, not politicize, these audits.”
Gary Blackmer led the audits division from 2009 to 2015. He was hired by then-Secretary of State Brown after serving as elected auditor for the city of Portland for 10 years.
Throughout his career, Blackmer stressed his office’s apolitical independence. He said that, judging by the audits that he’s seen in the past year, it appears the unit he oversaw has continued in that vein.
Memmott, he said, “came from Denver. He did good auditing there, and so far I’ve been pretty pleased with the work that’s come out. I think they’ve pretty consistently identified key issues and challenges.”
Memmott joined the secretary of state’s office last April.
Blackmer added that, if anything, the findings of the recent foster care audit were unusually sympathetic to the bureaucracy — for example, noting that the Department of Human Services lacked enough funding, an observation Richardson mentioned in his accompanying press release.
“There’s another way spin that,” Blackmer said. “How often does a Republican say a government program needs more money?”
Steve March, Multnomah County’s outgoing elected auditor and a former Democratic state lawmaker, says he hasn’t heard anything about state auditors being politicized.
He said he’s heard there may be differences of style and approach between Blackmer and Memmott.
“I think they’re trying to do quicker and more focused audits,” March said, adding that it’s not a matter of having an agenda. “They’re going after real problems and not just politicizing it.”
In an interview posted on the secretary of state’s auditing division blog in June, Memmott said that he was “disappointed” by what he characterized as “the strong political reaction to our audit work.”
“(The audits division) is completely nonpartisan yet it appears our work is often viewed from a partisan perspective,” Memmott told the interviewer. “This is not surprising but disappointing. I will be working hard to change this dynamic as the citizens are not well served within this paradigm.”
Portland Tribune reporter Nick Budnick contributed to this report.