An advisory opinion by the Maryland attorney general appears to undermine Gov. William Donald Schaefer's efforts to restrict legislative audits of state agencies.
Schaefer, angry about what he termed "overzealousness" on the part of the auditors, on March 8 issued new guidelines to his Cabinet requiring auditors to submit written requests before they could examine records.
But Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, in an opinion released yesterday, said written requests are not required in most cases under state law.
The governor said the new guidelines were necessary to counter what he called harassment of executive branch employees by the auditors of the Department of Fiscal Services, headed by William S. Ratchford 2nd.
Critics said Schaefer was trying to quash the independent examination of state operations.
Legislative auditors, who work for the General Assembly, frequently clash with agency heads as they critique executive-branch spending and programs.
At the request of both Ratchford and Schaefer, the attorney general prepared a six-page opinion on the legality of Schaefer's new guidelines. The opinion answered five questions raised by Schaefer.
The opinion said auditors can be required by agency heads to identify in advance the categories of records they want to examine so the agency can determine if the records are protected by executive privilege.
However, the auditors do not have to provide written requests for records, nor do they have submit in advance the questions they will ask agency staff, the opinion said.
Also, an auditor does not have to notify an agency that it is seeking information from outside sources, such as other agencies. But the agency can restrict the auditors to reviewing records during regular business hours.
Both sides declared the opinion a victory.
"This is exactly what the governor was looking for," said Paul Schurick, the governor's press secretary.
"He wanted an updated, clear opinion as to how far the 'Rambo' auditing approach could go," Schurick said after a reporter briefed him on the opinion.
Schaefer claimed auditors had been found rummaging through files before agency offices opened and doing other things he found offensive.
But Ratchford said the opinion upholds the process that state auditors had been using all along. Their policy manual instructs auditors to obtain permission before using records, for example.
"I feel very positive about it. From our perspective we're back to auditing the way we've always audited," Ratchford said.