Colin Van Ostern: Audit overdue for secretary of state’s office

  • Colin Van Ostern

For the Monitor
Published: 9/22/2018 12:09:55 AM

New Hampshire’s office of the secretary of state gets plenty of headlines each election day. But it also performs many vital state government functions on the other 364 days a year, from managing all new business registrations to protecting consumers at the Bureau of Securities Regulations – and much more.

It’s time to strengthen the secretary of state’s office with needed accountability, modernization, and reform. As the first serious new candidate for the office in decades, I’m sharing a series of policy proposals this fall to strengthen the office – starting here with specific proposals for how we can bring needed accountability to the office.

With no legislative financial audit in more than 11 years and a payroll that grew to more than 100 people in the last decade, New Hampshire’s secretary of state has traditionally resisted accountability to legislators and the public.

In the last financial audit of the office in 2007, the findings were alarming: “Weaknesses in the department’s processing of revenues were noted in our prior 1996 audit and ... remained in the department’s revenue process approximately 10 years later.” The office “placed its operations at considerable risk of IT failure.” In the audit, 52 percent of expenditures reviewed did not display evidence of being approved prior to payment. Fifty percent of payments eligible for discounts were overpaid, wasting tax dollars. Revenues were deposited in the wrong accounts in violation of state law, and costs were charged to unrelated accounts.

We owe the people of New Hampshire better accountability than this. Here’s how we can do it:

Audits. If elected by the Legislature on Dec. 5, my first action as secretary of state would be to request a full financial audit of the office of secretary of state – last completed more than 11 years ago. The last state audit identified 11 “material weaknesses” and 19 “significant deficiencies” in the office (in layperson’s language, each material weakness identifies an area of real risk that fraud, theft or serious error won’t even be detected). Waiting more than 11 years without an audit to independently confirm whether these issues have been fixed is dangerous. If elected I will immediately request a financial audit and will support a requirement of a similar audit every four years.

Better Performance Reviews. It’s time for a performance audit as well. A “performance audit” gets beyond dollars and cents. For example, a recent state performance audit of the Air Resources Division at the Department of Environmental Services found 96 percent of contractors said our state staff provide timely assistance and feedback; but the more than 50 percent of these high-quality state staff are eligible to retire within five years and the department’s workforce planning is lacking. If we examine the N.H. Air Resource Division with such detail, shouldn’t we do the same for the state office charged with our elections, corporations, corporate securities, vital records, archives and more?

Continuous Oversight. Until the secretary of state’s outstanding 11 material weaknesses are addressed, we need annual oversight. Perhaps most alarming in the last state audit was how little had been addressed after prior concerns were raised in the 1990s. Of the 12 central reportable findings in the prior 1996 audit, auditors found that only three items had been substantially addressed in the following decade – even though staff in the office increased from 43 employees to 116 employees in that time period (including, the audit notes, five family members of senior management officials). Given this track record, we need annual review from either legislative or independent auditors until all material weaknesses are addressed. It is not enough to rely on any public office to self-police their own response to serious findings like these.

I saw the power of accountability when I served a quarter-million fellow citizens as a state executive councilor from 2012-2016, charged with working with the governor and four other councilors to keep our state’s executive branch agencies accountable. We met with every state agency regularly. Each councilor had the independence to disagree with appointments or state contracts – and we each did.

Even our state’s constitutional offices must be accountable to the people. No one is above accountability, and it’s time for a secretary of state who welcomes it.

(Colin Van Ostern is a former executive councilor from Concord who plans to run for secretary of state this fall. The office is elected by the incoming 424 state legislators on Dec. 5.)

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