DiZoglio’s audit of Legislature seems straight out of Hollywood

The idea could sell, but is it a dangerous move?

THE TIMING is perfect.

Our new state auditor, Diana DiZoglio, is making good on a controversial campaign promise to audit the Legislature. Her investigation will not just be about its expenses, but in all the hidden ways it operates. This unprecedented and potentially dangerous action will gain support from across the Commonwealth, and it could be very hard to shut down.

Our state Legislature is loved, but impenetrable. According to polling over the past few years, it most likely has the highest public approval it has ever enjoyed; well over half the public is satisfied. It is dominated by the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party’s representation on Beacon Hill is the weakest it has ever been. It resists transparency, it is run in a top-down fashion, it will not yield to the demands of activists or good government groups, and there seems to be nothing anyone can do to reform it.

Until now.

A former Beacon Hill aide who was wrongfully terminated, then pressured to remain silent, then ran for office and won, to then run for auditor and turn her wrath on the powerful, shadowy world of her former colleagues and bosses – seems like the plot of a Hollywood movie. The story will sell.

Both the left and right will see their only hope to open up Beacon Hill to give them opportunities. Some have already come out in support. Many members in the press will love the story, especially because our new, one-party rule is offering fewer opportunities for good headlines. Reporters are also unhappy about the secrecy on Beacon Hill. Everyone but the voters will be cheering the auditor’s crusade.

But can she do this? 

DiZoglio, disagreeing with her predecessor, says she can because it is not forbidden, and also because it was done until a century ago. She is claiming to restart what was once done.

Yet there is neither precedent, nor justification. A Republican named Alonzo Cook was Massachusetts Auditor from 1915-1931. In 1922 and in previous years, there is a section in his annual report that lists the expenses of the committees in the Legislature. Until 1923, his office functioned like an accountant for our state government. He had the power to compel other parts of government to do what it recommended on financial matters. But there is no evidence that it demanded the state Legislature open up its processes or do anything other than manage its money properly. 

The reason the inclusion of legislative expenses stopped in 1922 is made clear in the introduction of the 1923 report, where Cook says the Legislature dramatically changed the scope and size of his office. Most of his accounting work and authority was put into a new administration and finance office under the governor. The legislative expenses disappeared from his annual reports after that.

So there is nothing that happened until 1922 that has any relevance to what DiZoglio is about to do.

And what exactly is she going to do? Her official statement says the public will be informed when it is done. When the Boston Herald asked her for details, she said she was not at liberty to say, and will not say more until it is over. 

That is a strange position for someone who campaigned on the issue of transparency in politics. Her massive transition team had more than 50 people on it, including current and former state legislators. As these teams typically turn campaign promises into action items, did they not lay out the plan for this investigation? DiZoglio also worked on Beacon Hill for years. She already knows how it operates.

The only plausible explanation for her vagueness is that she will go where areas look productive and will address the grievances she has listed as justifications. And, despite suggesting this audit would happen outside of public view, she will need the press and the activists to gain credibility and support. 

Can this audit be restrained or stopped? The Legislature could pass a law forbidding it from happening.  Yet there will be plenty of legislators who will support her work and see advantages for them. It is unclear if such a restriction could pass, nevermind how bad it would look, politically.

What will happen if Speaker Ron Mariano or President Karen Spilka refuse to cooperate beyond turning over financial materials and existing internal reviews? DiZoglio could mount quite a pressure campaign.

What would the Legislature do about that public criticism? Would anyone rid them of this meddlesome auditor? 

DiZoglio could also ask the Supreme Judicial Court to step in and authorize her audit. But she would be more likely to succeed at the SJC if she first wins the battle in the public square. And she could. 

Then she can argue powerfully that while such audits were not foreseen by the framers or previous auditors, in light of one-party rule, and many devices that protect incumbents, the people have no other way to make sure their government works for them. That would be hard to say no to.

However, while the  need for reform is real, letting the auditor decide what she can investigate across state government, without approval from the Legislature, is dangerous. Investigations could overlap or interfere with the authority of the attorney general, the treasurer, or the oversight responsibilities of the  Legislature itself. The Massachusetts Constitution describes a far less significant role for auditor, and the failure of the Legislature to modernize and reform cannot justify turning the auditor into a police officer in our politics. What if she decided to audit the Supreme Judicial Court, which is not very open either? What about the governor’s office? (Healey has recently disappointed people by showing less transparency than she promised.) What if she wanted to audit the office of the attorney general to determine if it is taking equity into consideration? There must be constraints on auditing other than the political needs of the moment, no matter how compelling they are.

Meet the Author

Ed Lyons

Political writer and Republican activist
Still, as the justices of our SJC are quite thoughtful, they will have to think about this: if Auditor DiZoglio, who ran on this issue and won, is not allowed to open up our impregnable Legislature, how else would it happen? While she should not be able to decide her own powers, perhaps there is room to decide that there is a limited level of oversight on the quality of government that is necessary. It would be better for the other branches of government to decide what that might be, before this gets too far.

Ed Lyons is a Republican activist and political writer.