Is Higa’s Audit Playing Politics?

Rick Hamada
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Wednesday - December 02, 2009

The critical audit of the state Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism may raise more questions than provide answers. In a draft report released last week, State Legislative Auditor Marion Higa chastised the department for its questionable operations, and laid the blame at the feet of the department’s director, Ted Liu.

Higa not only eviscerated the department, she also called for the removal of Liu from office.

I scanned for a precedent of a legislative auditor calling for the removal of a sitting cabinet member, and did not see one. The closest came in the early 1990s, when there was great controversy swirling around then State Librarian Bart Kane. A legislative audit revealed inappropriate use of funds by Kane in awarding procurement contracts. The state Board of Education, using information from the legislative auditor, narrowly voted to fire Kane. The difference here as is Higa did not recommend in her report that Kane be terminated.


 

I understand that Higa is held in high esteem by her colleagues, and I am not here to cast aspersions on her service as legislative auditor. As of this writing, Higa’s final report has yet to be issued. The draft report was released to the press by Liu himself, and included his point-by-point rebuttal of claims made by Higa, calling them “erroneous.” I believe both sides should have an equal opportunity to publicly respond once the final report is issued.

But we do have the draft at our disposal. What is curious is the role of Higa concluding that a cabinet member should be fired. The fiscal black hole of education, the low performance statistics and safety issues in the classroom and on campus collectively could be the justification for the termination of senior management officials within the Department of Education. But no personnel changes have been recommended let alone made in this department. So apparently everything is all right.

I worked as a project analyst for a West Coast bank years ago. My job was to ensure the Item and Data Processing Division created, implemented and enforced standard operating procedures. I interfaced with each department and published operating information accordingly. Inevitably, internal audits were performed and their conclusions were delivered to senior management. At no time, even if there was a clear deviation of SOP by an employee, did an auditor call for the replacement of a particular staff member. If senior management saw fit to discipline or terminate, it was their decision, and not one of the auditor.

Same thing here. Was Higa’s conclusion to fire Liu appropriate? Absolutely not.


Why would the legislative auditor submit a conclusion on a personnel issue with a cabinet member of the administration?

One explanation could be Higa is working on behalf of the Legislature. This Legislature, especially in the Senate, has been dissecting DBEDT and Liu. I am not opposed to following up on viable concerns. But the tone of some legislators is one of severe displeasure with Liu, and some would support his ouster. It’s curious that the basis for a great deal of Higa’s criticism of Liu focuses on a 2005 trade mission to China. Yes, allegations of impropriety were made, but there was redemption by the federal and local agencies, clearing Liu of any wrong-doing. It would seem logical the resolution of these cases would be readily available to the auditor upon request.

Since Higa enjoys such a positive reputation, certain lawmakers may continue to pursue the ouster of Liu and then cite Higa’s recommendation: “Well, even Marion Higa says he should be fired.”

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