For about an hour last week, Kip Memmott, the audits director for the Oregon Secretary of State, was having a pretty good run in front of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Audits.

Under Secretary of State Dennis Richardson’s leadership, the audits division has delivered a series of hard-hitting audits over the past two years, as Richardson promised when he ran in 2016.

Some people on the receiving end of those audits — including Gov. Kate Brown, whose Department of Human Services has been blistered, and the Portland Public Schools board, which took a beating in a recent review — have accused Richardson, the only Republican who holds statewide elected office, of playing politics. But there’s no question that the secretary of state has taken seriously the responsibility of serving as the public’s watchdog.

Memmott’s testimony in front of the committee was nearly finished when Steve Elzinga, Richardson’s legal advisor, approached him and appeared to whisper a message.

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Memmott then introduced an idea he’d forgotten to share with the committee: a plan to allow citizens to select one of five agencies targeted for audits in the coming year.

State audits are supposed to be an objective and nonpartisan evaluation of how well an agency is performing its appointed tasks and managing its resources.

State Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, reacted first to Memmott’s proposal. “I’m dubious,” she said.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, the committee’s co-chairwoman, was blunter. “I’m incredulous,” she said, saying the concept would amount to “pandering to public opinion.”

The other co-chair, state Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, joined the criticism, calling the idea “a very manipulative tool.”

Under heavy fire, Memmott hastily apologized, but that did nothing to mollify lawmakers’ concerns.

“I just can’t understate how negative my reaction is,” said Johnson, who along with Steiner Hayward co-chairs the Joint Ways and Means Committee which writes the state — and Richardson’s — budget.

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