Should Denver’s auditor have to be a CPA?

Sitting Auditor Tim O'Brien wants voters to decide

Denver Auditor Tim O'Brien says CPA professional standards will prevent his successors for conflicts of interest and ethical lapses in office.
Denver Auditor Tim O'Brien says professional accounting standards will prevent his successors for conflicts of interest and ethical lapses in office. Photo courtesy of Denver Auditor's office.

Denver’s elected auditor thinks all future holders of his office should be certified public accountants. He wants to give voters the chance to decide on the matter in November 2020.

Tim O’Brien, a CPA himself who’s in the first year of his second elected term, is proposing an ordinance that would require auditors to be CPAs, as well. He says that the requirement is implied in the current city charter, in state law and in the generally accepted government auditing standards. But, according to a statement from his office, O’Brien is only one of two elected auditors in Denver’s history who have met this requirement.

Deborah Ortega, a member of Denver’s City Council, doesn’t think the proposed change is justified.

“We’ve operated in the city without that requirement for many, many years and have had some great people who have served in that capacity,” she says.

What is the auditor’s role? Do you need to be a CPA to do the job?

The job of running the Denver Auditor’s Office is an elected seat that pays $151,800 annually and, in recent history, has been used as a watchdog over the city’s strong-mayor form of government and its handling of city contracts and tax dollars.

Dennis Gallagher, who served in the position from 2003 to 2014, says O’Brien misunderstands the role of the seat. The job is more about managing people and monitoring the executive branch than about wearing a green eye shade.

Both he and Ortega note that elected auditors rely on their staff, and that they can and should hire CPAs to help out with financial audits.

“I think just having a CPA does not guarantee that someone who’s elected to the Denver auditor’s office has the political wisdom to be able to ferret out where auditing should take place,” Gallagher says.

But Denver and its budget have grown considerably, making the job more demanding in recent years, notes former City Council member Susan Barnes-Gelt. While past elected auditors such as Gallagher and Don Mares employed professional staffers and were genuinely motivated by the public interest, she says, “Both were auditors when Denver was a much smaller city and quite candidly, there were two daily newspapers” whose reporters kept city officials accountable. Back then there was a lot more information available to the public, she adds.

O’Brien agrees that auditor’s role has changed. The job used to be more like a chief financial officer with accounting duties such as payroll. But substantive changes to the responsibilities of the auditor were made when the city charter was revised.

“Effective Jan. 1, 2008, we made the auditor truly an auditor, said you got to subscribe to auditor standards. You have to do financial and performance audits,” O’Brien says.

But in order to do financial audits that meet the generally accepted government audit standards, as described in a little yellow book published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, one must be a certified public account – a status that requires meeting the standards for education, testing, ethics and experience set by the Colorado State Board of Accountancy.

“The previous auditor did not do financial audits because he was not a CPA,” O’Brien says about Gallagher.

Gallagher notes that he had staffers in the office who performed the financial audits. He agrees that the generally accepted government auditing standards say that you need to be a CPA to conduct a financial audit. But he disagrees with the premise and says CPAs have convinced the legislature that they are the only people in the state of Colorado who can do an honest audit.

“I look upon it as sort of a power grab by the CPAs to just say that only one of their tribe can be the chief honcho of the auditor’s officer of the city of Denver. I think the people won’t like that.”

Gallagher believes there are people with other certifications, degrees and talents who can perform the job just as well as a CPA, if not better.

Mares – a former state lawmaker who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2003 and serves as the executive director of the Denver Department of Human Services in Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration – did not return phone calls for this story.

What does being a CPA add?

Supporters of the proposed ordinance think the auditor position should be professionalized as other city offices are. “We want the city attorney to be an attorney. We want the city engineer to be an engineer, a professional engineer. I think the auditor belongs in that category, also,” O’Brien says.

Licensed accounting professionals adhere to a professional code of conduct that he notes would prevent conflict as elected officials move into and out of the auditor’s office. He cites past instances of career politicians – including Gallagher, who was a city councilman – being elected to the seat.

“Do you think you could be objectively crafting policy one day and then auditing the policy the next day?” O’Brien asks. “According to professional conduct, you would have a conflict. You would have to at least sit out for two years which basically (amounts to) four years because the election cycle is four years.”

If an auditor is not a CPA, he says, he or she could use the office to criticize or embarrass programs they don’t favor. But the professional and ethical standards to which CPA are bound would preclude them from doing that.

O’Brien just thinks it’s good government. “This is about the structure of government going forward for a long, long time.”

But Gallagher is not convinced the requirements need to change. “I think it seems to be working pretty well, and if they can show me where somebody made some egregious error or some terrible mistake or something, I would be open to persuasion.”

What’s the downside to adding a CPA requirement?

Critics of the proposed ordinance say the CPA requirement would reduce the field of candidates qualified to run for the seat.

While neither O’Brien nor Gallagher know the exact number of CPAs living in Denver, both guess it would be a couple thousand people. O’Brien thinks that would result in plenty of qualified candidates. Gallagher, however, thinks that telling Denver voters to pick an auditor from a pool that size is elitist and “sort of undemocratic.”

In the event that no one would run for auditor, the city charter says the mayor would appoint a qualified person. If O’Brien’s ordinance is passed, this appointee would be required to be a CPA.

What happens next?

While some of Denver’s ordinances are made through the legislative process involving the city council and the mayor, others are placed on the ballot and decided by voters.

“The auditor had the ability to bring that before council, for council to decide if we want to put that on the ballot. That’s part of our role and responsibility, but he’s choosing to take the petition route,” says Ortega. “If it does go to the voters, they’ll have to make that decision.”

The petition route, also known as the initiative ordinance process, is the same process any citizen uses to bring a measure before Denver voters.

O’Brien will attend a hearing Sept. 11 with the city attorney and the director of the city council staff during which his initiative will be reviewed and publicly discussed. Once the language and format of the measure is approved, he will then need to collect 8,265 valid signatures from voters in order for his proposal to be added to the November 2020 ballot.

“I think the voters should decide,” he says.

Rachel Lorenz is a intern for The Colorado Independent and a student at Arapahoe Community College. Her desire to tell the stories of other people led her back to school and into journalism. Born in Iowa, Rachel spent two decades in the Midwest, two decades in the South and is now giving the West a try. She loves food, books and Colorado’s golden light.

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