House and Senate Lawmakers Tangle Over Attorney General Audit

Utah Republican Senate President, Wayne Neiderhauser
Utah Republican Senate President, Wayne Neiderhauser

The Legislative Audit Subcommittee saw some heated debate on Monday, as House and Senate lawmakers tangled over whether or not to proceed with an audit of the Attorney General’s office.

During the meeting, House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart (Republican, Provo) requested that House Minority Leader Jen Seelig (Democrat, SLC) make a formal motion to start a performance audit of the Office of the Attorney General. Senate President, Wayne Niederhauser (Republican, Sandy) quickly inquired if this was “an in depth audit, or is it just a regular audit?” Speaker Lockhart called Representative LaVar Christensen (Republican, Draper) to explain why there should be a shift in committee focus.

In 2011, Christensen sponsored and passed HB 176 – a law which requires the Legislative Auditor General to conduct in-depth audits of agencies in the executive branch—a bill Neiderhauser acted as the Senate sponsor to pass.

Christensen justified his request for a performance audit by emphasizing that the office has over 240 lawyers spread over 14 divisions, yet still farmed out the writing of construction contracts for the Legacy Highway to a San Diego law firm—contracts that failed to include provisions stating contractors would not be paid if there were a stop in construction due to litigation. Christensen said this oversight ultimately cost the state $40 Million as environmentalists successfully held construction up due to court ordered injunctions.

“It is not just the current crisis, but ongoing operations [that warrant an investigation],” Christensen said Monday.

John Schaff, the Legislative Auditor General, said “[the office of Auditor General] does not have the capacity to audit entire departments…[this idea] would put us in a difficult position.”

Senate President Neiderhauser followed up, asking if the proposal to dive deeply into the Attorney General’s office was politically motivated. Christensen quickly responded, saying that a performance audit was long overdue due to state law and concerns dating back nearly a decade.

“Everyone is focusing on the cause, but not the effect [the AG’s office has on the state]” said Christensen, “We need to ask: do we have an effective public law firm? Rather than have 23 random audits, can’t we make sure that at least two focus on base budget offices?”

Neiderhauser shot back, saying “I don’t know if this is the highest priority…why the Attorney General’s office now? Why not the Department of Education, the Department of Transportation? What are we not going to be able to do [if the audit is approved]? With that in mind, I would rather wait.”

Ultimately, the committee chose to compromise after Senator Gene Davis (Democrat, SLC) proposed the Auditor General make an initial survey of the office, allowing for specific prioritization to take place later. The Auditor Generals office will present initial findings in September.

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