Tuesday, July 01, 2008

No Shenanigans with State Dollars on Foley's Watch

The OWH ran an AP story about State Auditor Mike Foley. It could have done with less of a sneering "pro-life attack dog now biting other targets" tone, but it was great to see what a conscientious public servant can do with enough time and resources.

Mike, keep publicizing these cases. It's good for the rest of us to know that someone in state government is looking out for the taxpayer.

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Misdeeds bring out the ‘Hulk’ in Foley

■ The amiable state auditor sees red when contractors, citizens and state employees flout state regulations.

LINCOLN (AP) — The easy-going banter stops and State Auditor Mike Foley’s voice breaks into a high pitch that’s equal parts disbelief and anger.

It’s like taking a hard foul from a preacher in a pickup basketball game: You didn’t know he had it in him, and you can’t help but grin.

"We find a guy making $800,000 a year, and his tax return is in the HHS (state Health and Human Services) file, so it’s not like they didn’t know. He owns two motor homes, a $300,000 house in Omaha, and yet his child is receiving free services from the state. How is that possible?"

Foley was recalling an audit late last year that revealed state workers were reducing or writing off bills of some state patients without first verifying whether they had the financial wherewithal to pay. It was one of several Foley audits that have grabbed headlines since he became auditor just 2 years ago.

State auditors have sometimes been the supporting actors among Nebraska’s six statewide elected officials, doing important work but not occupying center stage.

Not so with Foley. The tall, thin New York native had a reputation as a quietly diligent lawmaker mainly focused on anti-abortion issues during his six years in the Legislature.

But since being elected state auditor in 2006, he seems to have found his true calling, regularly stirring the political pot with high-profile audit findings and breathing fire when he discloses them. Foley says it’s the best job he’s ever had and that it’s drawing some latent obsessive tendencies out of his 54-year-old bones.

"The first few months I thought, ‘This job is going to be so easy,’" Foley said. "Because with this talented staff, all I gotta do is show up, and they’re going to do the work, and I’m going to sign the reports and I’m going to go home and be with my family and my other life. But now as I get deeper and deeper into this, I’m thinking about these cases all the time, I’m working on them at home.

"You just get intrigued."

Earlier this month he released an audit that showed that an Omaha business with a large state contract to take care of autistic people had inflated employee time sheets, double-billed, spent nearly $20,000 on home improvements, $14,000 on meals, and thousands more on shopping sprees.

Foley seemed genuinely offended and surprised when explaining that the business hired attorneys he said tried to hide information from his office. Such tactics, he said, motivate him to "take people apart."

Last week, the two top executives of the Autism Center of Nebraska were fired.

Press conferences where he unleashes his office’s latest findings of government corruption have turned into major news events. A local Lincoln radio station has taken to calling him "Super Foley."

"I’m convinced the only way to fix things in government is to make it public," he said.

He ran for auditor thinking it would be a good fit with his education and background in finance — his previous jobs include corporate planning analyst for the Nebraska Public Power District and director of financial analysis for the National Association of Regulatory Utilities. Foley also had an itch to dig deeper into issues he was only able to "scratch the surface of" while he was a state senator.

There is some sniping that Foley has raised his profile by picking sensational topics, then publicizing audit findings with pithy sound bites that play well with the media and public.

Sometimes he shows his wife his prepared comments lambast­ing state agencies and other audit targets. He asks her, "‘Am I going over the edge here?’ I don’t like beating up on people. . . . I think some people have that perception."

But he clearly likes the political scene.

Thirty years ago, as a student at Michigan State University, Foley got Beltway fever as an intern for a congressman and liked the Washington scene so much he thought he’d never leave.

But he fell in love with a Nebraska native, decided Washington wasn’t the best place to raise a family, and left for Lincoln. Just three years later he was elected to the Legislature, in 2000.

Keeping tabs on his six children is his hobby. And he says the recent spotlight hasn’t caused him to consider other political opportunities. He says he would be "stunned" if he didn’t run for another term as auditor.

Foley says he has a great rapport with Gov. Dave Heineman, who he said supports his audits.

"When I told him about some of the stuff we were finding at the Autism Center, he said ‘Mike, this crap has got to stop.’"

Are some state employees blind to the source of their paychecks and the money they handle at their jobs?

"I want to stress it’s a minority, but they’re there. And they have control over the money in many cases. They’re spending money like drunken sailors, and they’ve simply forgotten where the money comes from."

1 comment:

OmaSteak said...

It's good to see someone checking up on the huge amount of tax dollars that are wasted. Too bad Foley is just nibbling around the edges, since the real serious money gets wasted by 49 elected people. Prime example, the new metro area learning community. I'm so happy that I'll be long gone before Ernie Chambers gets control of that body and access to property taxing authority.