In doing this job, we've bumped heads with legislators. There's some friction there. —State Auditor Auston Johnson
Copyright 2012, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — State Auditor Auston Johnson faces his first primary challenger, Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, for an office that usually doesn’t attract much attention.
And that's the problem, said Dougall, who has spent a decade in the Legislature. He said the state auditor should be a government watchdog, aggressively monitoring the performance of state agencies.
But Johnson, who joined the office in 1976 and has served as state auditor for the past 17 years, said his work is professional and has contributed to the state's reputation as being among the nation's best-managed.
The race is too close to call according to a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll.
Johnson holds a slight lead with the support of 29 percent of respondents to 25 percent for Dougall. But 45 percent of the respondents said they didn't know whom they'd vote for in the race.
The poll of registered voters who said they planned to vote in Tuesday's primary was conducted June 15-21 by Dan Jones & Associates and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.6 percent.
What voters need to consider, Johnson said, is he is a certified public accountant and Dougall is not. While not a requirement for the job, Johnson said being a CPA is key to producing the office's audits of the tax dollars spent by state and local governments.
"That's what we're trained to do," Johnson said, noting the Utah Constitution spells out the state auditor is the financial auditor of public accounts.
Dougall, who has degrees in engineering and an MBA, disagrees.
The office already has CPAs on staff, Dougall said. "It's not like we need another CPA. What we need is leadership," he said.
Dougall said he would initiate more performance audits to measure government efficiency, similar to what the Legislative Auditor General's Office already does at the request of legislative leadership.
He proposed electronically monitoring state employees, starting with travel and other activities deemed at high risk for problems, on an ongoing basis rather than auditing a statistical sample of employees in a specific department.
"It's a different approach," Dougall said. "A big part of an audit is to help honest people stay honest."
Johnson said he doesn't know why he has competition from another Republican this election. Typically, he said, he doesn’t even get a chance to speak at party conventions.
This year, Johnson was forced into a primary at the state GOP convention after delegates heard House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, and Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, endorse Dougall.
"In doing this job, we've bumped heads with legislators," Johnson said. "There's some friction there."
He said it would be bad for the auditor's office to elect someone who's been in the Legislature.
"I don't think there's any question with a former state legislator as auditor, they would become more political," Johnson said. "That's the background he comes from."
As auditor, Johnson said he earned a reputation of being fair and balanced. Two years ago, Gov. Gary Herbert asked Johnson to audit the Utah Department of Transportation amid allegations contributions to the governor's re-election bid were tied to a $1 billion-plus road contract.
"Had it led to the point the governor had influenced bidding, we would have said that," Johnson said. But no such evidence was found despite offering UDOT employees the opportunity to provide information in confidence.
Dougall disagreed he would politicize the office and said he wouldn’t hesitate to take on the Legislature as auditor. "We need somebody who is going to stand up," he said, criticizing Johnson for not pushing harder for legislative action on past audits, including an examination of problems at the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Johnson has also been accused by Dougall of releasing several recent audits to boost his campaign. Syracuse Mayor Jamie Nagle leveled the same charge after an audit of the city was released months after the problems were corrected. Nagle said Johnson turned the issue into "political fodder."
Dougall's ability to maintain transparency in the auditor's office has been called into question by Johnson. Dougall sponsored HB477, the controversial bill seen as gutting the state's open records act that was repealed after a series of public protests.
The winner of Tuesday's GOP primary will be opposed on the November ballot by Democrat Mark Sage and Constitution Party candidate Richard Proctor.