Thursday, May 08, 2003

State Auditor a Marketing Guru?

The State Auditor's office, headed by Jeff McMahan, recently spent an undisclosed amount of taxpayer money, investigating the Tourism and Recreation Department, at the request of the Attorney General at the insistence of a Tulsa man that has made a career of harassing state agencies with unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. The man, identified in Daily Oklahoman articles as Mr. Sam Mahjoub, has spent several years accusing the Oklahoma Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Tourism of everything from running fake overseas offices to conspiratorial secret meetings in exotic European capitals. For at least three years Mr. Mahjoub has been roaming the halls of the State Capitol with a trolly full of "evidence" to back up his conspiracy theories. Many Capitol denizens and staffers have grown weary of his obsession and his lurking presence in the halls. The State Auditor however, has spent tens of thousands of dollars investigating claims raised by the man in the last few years. More on his conspiracy theories in a later post.

The latest travesty was an exhaustive and expensive investigation of Mr. Mahjoub's claims against the Tourism Department. The investigation covered the period from July 1, 2001 to October 10, 2002 and investigated claims of illegal contracting and contracting procedures and such matters as whether clothing was purchased for employees. The result? Nothing of any significance at all. You can read the report for yourself at the State Auditor's website. It is said that the State Auditor's office released the report to the conspiracy theorist before they released it to the public. If so, the State Auditor needs to answer concerns of those who believe the office has become too close to a modern-day Rasputin.

Disturbingly, the State Auditor, in this report, and other recent reports, has overstepped the office's responsibility and started making recommendations on strategic decisions he knows little or nothing about. In the Tourism report for example, the State Auditor says the "Legislature might consider prioritizing the Department's funding in a more appropriate advertising contract of $4.5 million dollars per year may seem inappropriate during a period of economic downturn and severe budget cuts at the state government level." The State Auditor's business sense, or lack thereof, aside, he has no business trying to make agencies strategic decisions for them. Will he next start telling the Wildlife Department how long hunting season should last? Or perhaps he'd like to weigh in on whether the Secretary of State's office should use ivory or winter white-colored stationery? The public's welfare is not well looked after by having an accountant tell marketers how to do their job. Any business/marketing professional knows that when times get tough that is exactly when you don't cut your advertising budget. That's when you need sales more than ever.

It is very necessary to have a State Auditor to investigate possible corruption or misuse of funds in government agencies and departments. But if the State Auditor allows his office to be used by people obsessed with conspiracy theories and wildly throwing around unsubstantiated allegations of corruption against agencies and public servants, he is not spending our money wisely. He is engaging in a disservice to those whose interests he takes an oath to protect.

What comes as a surprise to many is that those audited, or investigated, must pay the State Auditor's office for the entire cost of the audits. These amounts can easily be in the tens of thousands of dollars. So, no audits, no income for the State Auditor's office. The State Auditor has a financial incentive to investigate agencies. Even the innocent must pay to be investigated. This can be quite an unplanned-for blow to the budgets of agencies and offices trying to do their jobs of serving the public. To be fair, the State Auditor must respond to citizens, even crackpot citizens, who alledge corruption. But should the State Auditor allow himself to be manipulated by crackpots?

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