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October 12, 2008

N.C. auditor

The two candidates for state auditor each say the other will bring partisanship to a job that is supposed to be above politics.

Voters will have to decide who deserves four years as the state's lead watchdog on waste and abuse of taxpayer money.

Incumbent Republican Les Merritt says he has been aggressive about watching the public's money. That, he adds, has led critics in state government, largely controlled by Democrats, to accuse him of pushing a political agenda.

“If you really do your job, occasionally you're going to be in certain areas where you're going to have people really push back at you,” Merritt said. “I've got some scars to really show that.”

His opponent, Democrat Beth Wood, a former training director in the state auditor's office said Merritt has opened himself up to the criticism.

“Not until Les Merritt came to work there did we start to hear ‘Republican versus Democrat,'” Wood said.

“If people believe that the audits are done in a partisan way – they're not objective, they're not independent, somebody's got some foregone conclusion – there's no credibility to the audit.”

Perceptions of audits matter because although the auditor's office has the right to inspect the books, it has little power to take action on findings of waste or misuse. The auditor is charged with watching state money, including how nonprofit organizations spend state dollars.

The candidates are both certified public accountants with experience in the State Auditor's Office. Merritt has four years as auditor, and Wood worked for 11 years in the office's training division, before leaving in 2007.

Merritt counts among his accomplishments streamlining the way the office operates, reducing a backlog of investigative audits and implementing a training program to help nonprofit agencies comply with accounting rules.

Wood says she wants to make audits easier for the legislature and the public to understand, implement an improved training program for auditors in the office and restore public trust in the office.

Wood said Merritt opened himself to criticism of bias when in 2007 he urged the legislature to delay a bill that would let voters register days before an election. Merritt's staff was working on an audit that seemed to show irregularities in the state's voter rolls, including an allegation that some voters were, in fact, dead people. Merritt later backed away from the findings. He was accused of pushing a Republican agenda.

Merritt says he made the call to tell lawmakers about the incomplete audit because he worried that if the findings turned out to be true, lawmakers needed to know before they changed the law.

“I think there was a better way to handle that,” Merritt said. “It wasn't partisan, but it sure did lead into some accusations.”

Wood said the incident showed that Merritt can let politics influence his decisions. But in her campaign material, Wood has emphasized partisan politics, as well. In an e-mail to supporters she touted momentum in her campaign.

“With your support, we can maintain this lead and ‘Take this Seat Back!'”

Wood said the message was addressed to Democrats, but her record shows she will be objective as auditor.

“I can tell you that my record in the state auditor's office … will show you that I've never done anything in a partisan way,” she said.

The next four years may be challenging for the state auditor.

Economic forecasters predict the national economic slowdown will reduce state revenues, which would place even more pressure to eliminate wasteful spending. The office has a large number of employees nearing retirement age, and the next auditor may have to worry about losing the most experienced employees.

And the office is currently in a legal battle with the N.C. State Ethics Commission, which sued Merritt in August. The commission wants a judge to prevent Merritt from investigating a claim of preferential treatment for Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Democratic nominee for governor.

The suit states that Merritt has a conflict of interest because his investigations chief once worked for the commission. The suit follows an escalating feud between Merritt and the commission over jurisdiction.

“How we ended up in nuclear war instead of just solving the thing, it's kind of hard to understand,” Merritt said. “You can't back off. You can't let anybody back you down, but at the same time, you can disagree but not be disagreeable.”

Wood said she would ask a national state auditor's group to select a Republican and Democrat from out of state to investigate the case.

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