A Conversation with Illinois Auditor General Bill Holland
After 23 years as the state’s auditor general, Bill Holland announced his retirement effective at the end of this year. The auditor general is responsible for reviewing “the obligation, expenditure, receipt and use of public funds,” according to its web site. “The office issues approximately 150 post-audits of State agencies each year, reviewing an agency’s financial records, compliance with State and federal laws and regulations, and program performance after the close of its fiscal year.” Holland was widely praised for his work in the office and his nonpartisan approach to it.
One of the most well-known audits that Holland oversaw during his tenure was of the Illinois Department of Central Management Services (CMS). The wrongdoing Holland’s office found helped put a spotlight on then governor Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached in 2009.
The Illinois General Assembly has chosen Illinois Democratic Representative Frank Mautino as his successor. This month, Cook-Witter talked to Holland about his tenure and the position of auditor general.
CW: What are you proudest about of your tenure?
BH: The respect that the General Assembly and the public at large have for the office.
CW: You came from a very partisan job — chief of staff for former Senate President Phil Rock. And you came into what is a very nonpartisan job. What was the transition like?
BH: Well, it lasted about 30 seconds. (He laughs.) I was ready to move from the partisan arena to the nonpartisan arena. I never looked back.
It was time to go. Some of the stuff that I was seeing, I didn’t particularly enjoy, but I enjoyed working around state government and this is a great place to be if you still enjoy what goes on in state government. I’ve had a ball here.
CW: Did anybody give you a hard time when you transitioned to this nonpartisan position?
BH: Sure they did! There was some doubt as to whether I could do that or not. They said, ‘We’re going to watch you for a while,’ which was fair. It took two to three years until I won people over and proved to them I was O.K., that I was not going to use the office for political purposes.
CW: Your office is like state government’s cop. Do you agree?
BH: I’m more akin to saying we’re like the beat cop, not the guy who’s doing the murder investigations. We’re like the guy on the street who you know is there, who might be able to help out. You see him and it makes you less inclined to do something wrong.
CW: Do you think that’s happened since you started in this position, that some of the things you’ve done in the office helped keep things more on the up and up?
BH: I think we will always see some wild cards in state government, but it’s a good thing the auditor general and the Auditor General’s office are here to make things go smoothly.
CW: What’s been your greatest challenge in office?
BH: Probably in the beginning, when I had to bring myself up to speed on generally accepted auditing standards.
CW: How did you approach that learning curve?
BH: I’m still working on it. I had people who work for the office and I would say, “Why are we doing it this way?,” and they’d explain the professional standards and it would make sense. And truly, that’s one of the beautiful things about this office; it would be very hard for somebody to use this as a partisan position because of the professional standards that we operate under. Partisan staffs’ motivations are different than the auditor’s. We’re just trying to do our statutorily required audits and what we find, we disclose. We don’t try to do any gotcha stuff because every audit that we release, the agency has seen before it goes out, which is a very fair way to do things.
CW: Let’s talk about the 2005 CMS audit. You’ve said the pushback you got from the Blagojevich administration over that was the worst you ever got.
BH: It was pretty bad.
CW: What happened and how did you react to it?
BH: (Former) governor Blagojevich came into office in January, 2003 and it was not too long afterward that we started seeing things that caused us to be somewhat concerned. But remember, we do audits looking backwards and we release them sometime later.
When we were doing the Central Management Services audit and sharing with them what we’re finding, they pushed back against it.
CW: The heads at CMS specifically?
BH: The Blagojevich administration. There were lots of people involved.
They began to take some action about the things we were finding, and making it appear as if they were doing it on their own, and not as a result of my audit work. And whatever we were finding that they didn’t like, they were saying, “This is just accountants talking, this isn’t very important.” When in fact, it really was pretty important. I’d been around long enough to sense that the process they were invoking was one that would make the release of the CMS audit a little bit more tricky than other audits. We’ve released bad audits on agencies and for the most part people are pretty respectful of the audit process.
The CMS audit was probably a harbinger of things to come because it never was real easy with the Blagojevich administration. It was then that I knew in order to make my case I was going to have to do something I had never done before, which was to have a press conference (about the CMS audit).
At the end of the day, the people that the press conference didn’t help was the Blagojevich administration because what happened next was my audits, which were typically covered by the media and placed in the obituary page, were now moving to the front page. And that’s not exactly the way I wanted to operate. I would rather operate, and still choose to operate in a manner that is much more behind the scenes. We’ll deal with agencies, we’ll disclose their problems, and try to help them solve them. That’s why I don’t do press releases either, and why you don’t see me in the public. How would that improve government? It would not, it would just force people into corners.
I like my audits being publicly noticed, but this was a very adversarial relationship which is not good. My staff gave me those. (He points to a pair of boxing gloves on a shelf in his office. One says OAG, for Office of the Auditor General, and the other says CMS.) I’m glad I only have one pair of those, I prefer not to do that.
CW: Have you or your staff ever felt personally threatened because of audits you were doing or abuses you were finding?
BH: No. Across the board, no.
CW: Did you ever feel threatened for your job?
BH: No, absolutely not. Never.
CW: Since you took this job, especially since you were chief of staff for former Senate President Rock, the partisanship in state government has increased so much. Has that affected your office or how you or any of your employees work, or how you’re treated?
BH: No. I think part of the success of the way we have operated here is because we consciously stay out of the fray. It comes to me to protect my employees from being in the fray. We do our job and we shoot straight. I was very pleased that the day I announced my retirement that there were kind words said by all of the four legislative leaders and the governor, who doesn’t know me that well.
CW: As the partisanship in state government continues to worsen, do you ever worry that it could impinge on this office after you’re gone?
BH: I really don’t. I think it all is a matter of the person in the position, as long as they acknowledge that (this isn’t the place for) partisanship. Having a ten-year term for the auditor general does a lot to give this person a lot of insulation. Why would anybody want to jeopardize a ten-year term for some fleeting bit of partisanship?
My very strong belief is that the way the auditor general position in Illinois is crafted is a beautiful way to do business. To become auditor general, you have to be approved by three-fifths of each chamber of the Illinois General Assembly, which typically means you have to have some minority support. And the auditor general serves for a ten-year term and is not elected by the general public. These factors make it a very strong position.
CW: Anything else you want to add?
BH: I announced my retirement in June. I had known for a while I was going to retire. My thought was I want to go while I still enjoyed the job. I didn’t want to wait until somebody said, “Geez, how long is that Holland going to be around? Isn’t it time for him to go?”
Cook-Witter, Inc. Marks 30th Anniversary
In the fall of 1985, Bob Cook and Randy Witter began Cook-Witter, Inc. in an office at 625 South Second Street in Springfield, just two blocks south of the State Capitol. Cook had been CEO and chief lobbyist for the Illinois Association of Realtors, where Witter worked for him as a legislative assistant before becoming the Association’s director of governmental affairs.
The two wanted to form a company based on their beliefs. “We had a basic belief in the value of lobbyists in the legislative process. We also decided we didn’t want to represent tobacco, liquor, or gambling,” Witter says. “We’re not passing judgement. It’s because of our comfort level.” At first the company had a few clients. Today it provides a wide range of governmental affairs services to numerous health care, banking, manufacturing, real estate, transportation, revenue, local government, and agricultural organizations. Many are statewide associations.
“It seems like just yesterday that Bob Cook and I decided to form Cook-Witter, Inc.,” says Witter. “We started meeting in September, 1985 and officially had our letter of incorporation by October 1, 1985.”
Now, Cook-Witter, Inc. has its own building and a larger staff. Bob Cook retired in 1995. Bruce Kinnett joined the firm as vice president, Betsy Mitchell joined as an associate, and Beth Martin provides technical support. In 2001, Cook-Witter, Inc. moved to its current headquarters at 225 East Cook Street in Springfield, just a block from the Statehouse. This year, attorney Brian Wojcicki joined the firm as its chief operating officer to help steward the firm and its reputation for integrity into the future. The firm’s staff offers clients more than 100 years of lobbying and legal experience.
“The hallmark of Cook-Witter over the years has been to represent our clients with honesty and integrity,” says Witter, president and CEO of Cook-Witter, Inc. “We believe that your word is your bond at the State Capitol.”