Unsung watchdogs

July 18, 2006

The Maryland Department of Transportation hands out more than $147,000 in questionable severance pay to three employees. A handful of state agencies spend $1.4 million to purchase goods at inflated prices, including from a Florida outfit that is accused of bribing thousands of civil servants across the country. The department in charge of issuing unemployment benefits has overpaid by nearly $76 million. State police are tardy in collecting and analyzing DNA samples from prisoners. A panel set up to oversee doctors takes too long to investigate complaints about poor medical care. And cell phone vendors are not complying with their state contracts.

Snippets from daily news digests? Yes, but you might be surprised to learn who breaks these and scores of stories like them on a routine basis. By law, all state departments and agencies must undergo thorough fiscal and performance audits every three years. The task falls to the 110 unusually low-key and anonymous bean counters who work in the Office of Legislative Audits, formerly known as the Department of Fiscal Services until the Assembly reorganized it in the late 1990s.

These auditors, functioning much like the federal Government Accountability Office, are supposed to identify and document financial failings throughout state government, regardless of personality or politics. It's not a glamorous job, and their reports often end up fodder for the bitter battles fought in Annapolis. But the work is a crucial part of keeping an eye on government in an era when fewer media and citizen watchdog groups have the means to probe so deeply. Maryland taxpayers should be grateful.

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