Tim DeFoor

Tim DeFoor, a Republican, was elected Pennsylvania Auditor General in the 2020 general election.

A Republican elected to a statewide watchdog post two weeks ago is positioned to keep an eye on spending by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration during Wolf’s final two years in office.

Timothy DeFoor, the Dauphin County controller who has spent decades as an auditor and financial investigator, said he is ready to hit the ground running in January as Pennsylvania’s auditor general and that political affiliation has nothing to do with it.

“I’ve always felt the bottom line is to do the job,” said DeFoor, 58, the first person of color to hold the office and the first Republican to hold the office since 1997, when Barbara Hafer’s second term ended.

It’s a long-held notion that taxpayers benefit when the auditor general and governor are from opposing political parties.

Tim Potts, a former top Democratic staff for the Pennsylvania House and later, in retirement, a leader against the General Assembly’s 2005 middle-of-the-night pay raise, said he believes there can be a “partisan function” to the outcome — and that it’s is not necessarily bad. In the least it can act as a deterrent because the office-holder is aware that a fiscal investigator of the opposition is keeping an eye on his or her activates.

“It’s reasonable to expect that given an auditor general of the same political party as the General Assembly, but different than the governor, that financial and performance audits will be performed at least some of the time which have the effect of creating political embarrassments for the governor,” said Robert P. Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

For his part, Wolf is stressing cooperation over conflict.

“Since day one, the governor has shown a commitment to making state government more open and transparent, and has a proven track record of reaching across the aisle to get things done in Harrisburg,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf’s spokesperson. “The governor looks forward to partnering with the new row officers to help Pennsylvania move forward.”

Independent but tethered

The auditor general is considered an independent office, but it cannot be free of politics because its funding is controlled by the Legislature, Strauss said. A state law prevents the auditor general from auditing the General Assembly.

“The legislative branch of government indirectly still controls the activities of the auditor general because it controls the monies or budget for his activities,” Strauss said.

DeFoor will succeed Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat who made no effort to distance his political aspirations from the governor’s. In his failed bid to unseat Rep. Scott Perry in the 10th Congressional District race this year, DePasquale’s campaign not only took donations from Wolf, but had the governor host an online fundraiser for his congressional bid.

Wolf’s support came as DePasquale was conducting an audit of the waivers the Wolf administration granted to businesses during the early months of the pandemic lockdowns, the Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported in September.

The audit eventually concluded that waivers were handed out inconsistently and with little transparency, creating an uneven playing field. Those were the general conclusions of the program’s critics long before the audit was released.

“We issued a tough interim report that outlined ways to improve the process and the investigation is continuing,” a DePasquale spokesman said when asked for comment.

History of harsh audits

Some auditors general of the same party as the governor have also issued stinging audits. One was Jack Wagner, a Pittsburgh Democrat who served as auditor general from 2005 to 2013, Strauss said. Republicans in the Legislature on many occasions used Wagner’s audits in battles with Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.

Even though Wagner’s funding required legislative approval, he issued one of the toughest audits in recent memory against the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, whose board includes mostly members of the state House and Senate.

The agency was under fire in 2007 when records — released under court order — showed board members spent $768,000 on trips to fancy resorts. An audit by Wagner revealed bonuses for agency employees, which Wagner said went disproportionately to the executive staff, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported in 2008.

The agency paid for employees to entertain clients in March 2006 at a posh Scottsdale, Arizona, steakhouse, where they ran up a tab of $5,300. The price per person was $265, according to Wagner’s audit.

The state’s student loan agency shelled out $26,116 for “rally towels” at two Penn State football games, bought $10,000 worth of iPod Nanos for an internet contest, spent $11,500 on screwdriver sets as giveaway items at conferences, and spent $66,640 on Hershey’s candy packages for 2,380 clients that cost $28 each, the Trib reported.

Stepping stone

The state row offices, including treasurer and auditor general, have often been a stepping stone to higher office. There’s no question politics motivates many of these office holders, said Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College. But it is not necessarily why a Republican auditor hammers a Democrat or Republican governor,

“It is already baked into the job that the office holders will try to raise their profiles,” Yost said. Doing the job well garners publicity and lifts the auditor’s public reputation, he said.

The Pennsylvania state treasurer is considered a lighter-weight watchdog with a much lower profile. The treasurer has the power to “pre-audit” funds and stop payments. The treasurer is also involved with the governor and auditor general in approving new borrowing by the state.

Incumbent Democratic Treasurer Joe Torsella of Montgomery County lost a narrow race for reelection to Republican Stacy Garrity of Bradford County, an Army veteran and business woman.

Follow Brad Bumsted on Twitter @BEBumsted