SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Three California lawmakers have proposed a bill that would make it a crime for anyone in a state agency to obstruct or tamper with an audit – a direct response to the state auditor’s revelation earlier this year that the University of California president’s office had done exactly that.
This April, state Auditor Elaine Howle found the University of California Office of the President withheld potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in a slush fund with no oversight by the Legislature. Howle also accused the office of interfering in the audit in an attempt to conceal funds and to ensure that reports from UC campuses reflected favorably on the office.
In response, the legislature stripped the office of authority to form its own budget by requiring direct legislative funding, and several members vowed to introduce legislation to ensure it and any other state agency would face punishment for attempts to obstruct the state auditor in the future.
The Audit Protection Act, written jointly by Assembly members Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, passed the state Senate’s public safety committee this week.
“I was very disturbed by the allegation of interference. This bill will give the state auditor the necessary tools to ensure that all public agencies are held accountable and cooperate with state auditors,” Muratsuchi said.
If passed and signed by the governor, the measure will impose a civil penalty of $5,000 on anyone who intentionally deceives, defrauds, obstructs or interferes with the California State Auditor in the performance of their official duties, according to a statement by Muratsuchi.
Existing law states that any person who interferes with the auditor is guilty of a misdemeanor. But no penalty has ever been established, leaving the auditor with little recourse in the event that an audit is obstructed.
At issue are two surveys submitted by Howle to UC campuses that were determined to be altered either by the UC president’s office or on its orders.
“Correspondence between the Office of the President and the campuses shows that the Office of the President inappropriately reviewed campuses’ survey responses, which resulted in campuses making changes to those responses prior to submitting them to us,” Howle said in the report.
Howle said the revisions created a “chilling effect” on the information provided by campuses and diluted the efficacy of the audit.
The proposed measure will create a new misdemeanor and is intended to function alongside existing statutes that may have been used by the state auditor to seek punishment against the UC president’s office, had they elected to pursue the case.
The bill moves next to the state Senate Appropriations Committee to determine its fiscal impact.