Updated Feb. 20, 2019. This story was clarified as to the outcome of criminal charges and the institute’s funding status.
Texas has had no state auditor for more than three years; a month into this legislative session, it is unclear whether state leaders intend to address the vacancy.
Since State Auditor John Keel retired in January 2016, the agency has soldiered on under the leadership of his first assistant, Lisa Collier. Keel has lauded Collier’s work and the more than 180 employees of the Texas State Auditor’s Office.
Last year, one of the state’s key regulatory and accountability agencies produced about 50 financial, efficiency and investigative reports. The output is comparable to recent years, with or without a titular state auditor and with a biennial budget of $45.6 million, down by almost 10 percent due to cuts made by legislators in 2017.
But a review of three years of auditor’s reports, done by The Texas Monitor, shows that something has gone missing: the kind of blockbuster reports that turn a critical eye on major initiatives backed by the state’s top three elected officials — the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House. In short, the kind of reports that the agency turned out under Keel.
While few will speak publicly, capitol observers have long believed the animus between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former Speaker Joe Straus is the reason no one has replaced Keel. But it is unclear what triggered the stalemate.
By state government code it is the Legislative Audit Committee that appoints the state auditor. The committee is made up of the lieutenant governor, the speaker, and two members each appointed by those two officials. Patrick and Straus chose not to convene a meeting after Keel retired. The committee hasn’t met since 2007, according to Mike Stiernberg, legislative coordinator for the auditor’s office. Nor have any meetings been scheduled yet in this session, he said.
The Texas Monitor contacted staff for all six audit committee members, including those appointed by new Speaker Dennis Bonnen. None responded to requests for comment on the auditor vacancy.
Jack Gullahorn, former lobbyist and head of a lobbying group, Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, told The Texas Monitor that with property taxes and school finance as priorities this session, Patrick and Bonnen may not pay attention to the auditor’s office.
“These two guys are still trying to find their footing,” Gullahorn said. “They may decide things are operating just fine under the status quo.”
Gullahorn, who in recent years made government ethics his focus, acknowledged the importance of the auditor and the need for the agency to be run by someone like Keel, who managed the intense political pressures of the job.
“The job is very political,” he said. “You can’t get away with alienating your key constituencies.”
Keel managed political constituencies as auditor for 12 years and for a decade before that as director of the Legislative Budget Board. In January 2013, his office issued a report challenging the propriety of millions of dollars in grants awarded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.
The institute was created in 2007, with $3 billion in taxpayer-underwritten bonds and the full-throated support of Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick. The institute’s oversight committee comprised nine members, three appointed by each leader.
The auditor’s cancer institute report resulted in felony charges against one of the grant managers, who was later found not guilty. A moratorium was placed on the institute’s grant-giving. This year, legislators are being asked either to approve another $3 billion in borrowing to fund the institute or cut off public funding altogether.
In September 2014, Keel’s office fired a broadside at the Texas Enterprise Fund, a favorite project of Perry. The audit concluded there was little accounting for the qualifications of the businesses that had received more than $200 million in taxpayer grants and scant evidence that those businesses were creating the jobs they’d promised in exchange for the funding.
The fund was a constant point of contention between Abbott, who has continued to support government funding of startup businesses, and Straus, who questioned the competitiveness and possible favoritism in the grant process.
In the past year, the auditor’s office has produced its share of important watchdog reports. In July, the office concluded that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission may have improperly granted $3.4 billion of its contracts.
Years of hard-hitting auditors reports have been responsible for repeated attempts at reform of Health and Human Services, the state’s largest and most troubled agency.
In August, the auditor’s office reported major contract mismanagement at the Texas Education Agency, which has cost state taxpayers at least $2 million.
However, since Keel’s retirement there have been no major audits involving the state’s top political players. The Texas Monitor asked to interview Collier for this story, but Stiernberg said agency officials don’t generally talk to the press.
Keel, who granted interviews while he was in office, avoided the question of politics in the choice of audit targets and instead offered a positive assessment of the way the office has operated since his departure.
“I’ve been comfortable with the performance of the staff and the way Lisa has run things,” Keel said. “From what I can tell, they are meeting federal and state requirements and getting the work done. I hold the department and its head in high regard.”
The Legislative Audit Committee has not done its work, Keel said. He would not say why he thinks they haven’t appointed a new auditor, nor why they have chosen not to promote Collier.
“It is a statutory requirement,” he said. “I can’t tell you why they haven’t done it. Nobody’s asked for my opinion.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].