Candidates for state auditor stress objectivity over partisanship

By: - August 18, 2022 3:31 pm

Democratic incumbent Rob Sand will face off against Republican Todd Halbur in the November election. (Graphic made by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

In the race for state auditor, Democratic incumbent Rob Sand promises voters he will remain committed to serving as the taxpayers’ watchdog, while Republican opponent Todd Halbur believes the job should be separate from partisan disputes.

Sand has been a target of Republican criticism during much of his tenure, based in part on speculation he might run for governor someday.

A “conservative public-interest law firm,” the Kirkwood Institute, filed a lawsuit accusing Sand of failing to comply with a public records request. The suit originates from a report out of Sand’s office that claimed Reynolds breached a state law by using public dollars to “disseminate the likeness of a state official” in an ad featuring her encouraging Iowans to get vaccinated. The law excludes expenditures for emergency powers. The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board unanimously found Sand’s accusations were without merit.

The Kirkwood Institute filed a public records request due to the “potential political overtones” of the report. In the lawsuit, Kirkwood Institute seeks a court order to mandate Sand to present the records and pay a fine for violating the Open Record Laws.

Reynolds herself has framed discussion in the race. Earlier in the summer, she spoke at a campaign event where she told an audience she wanted her “own” auditor. Sand was elected in 2018, when he beat Republican incumbent Mary Mosiman.

Sand brushed off the criticism.

“I think people in Iowa have a good understand that the work that I have done has both criticized and defended Reynolds,” Sand said. “I don’t think we want someone who is going to be a lap dog.”

Halbur said the job of auditor plays a pivotal role as the voice of all taxpayers, and he doesn’t just view the office as a stepping stone office for a political career.

“The office is called the taxpayer watchdog, but I want to be a voice of the taxpayer, not just a watchdog for a certain political office,” Halbur said. “I don’t view it as a political office. I really view it as a place of destination for a qualified candidate to do the auditing job who has a financial agenda, not a political agenda.”

During the June primary, Halbur defeated former state Rep. Mary Ann Hanusa, who had received an endorsement from Reynolds. Halbur said the Republicans who didn’t vote for him may not have known enough about his background. Halbur has campaigned by traveled around the state doing meet and greets with local candidates.

“I want to earn their votes, but I also need to earn the votes of all Iowans, whether or not they’re Democrat or independent,” Halbur said.

Party membership among auditor’s staff

Sand appointed an independent to a leadership position in his office, as well as a Republican who made campaign contributions to his political opponent. He also added law enforcement officials to his office, which he said has been beneficial when investigating fraud and embezzlement.

“I think just in general, we have been critical of people in both parties and done a good job of being an aggressive watchdog,” Sand said.

When Halbur was asked if he would maintain Sand’s practice of hiring officials from the opposing party to his office, he said he hires based on the applicant’s qualifications.

“I don’t ask the questions of whether or not you’re a Republican or Democrat…,” Halbur said. “I think we can all work as a team. In the state auditor’s role, we have to be the voice of the taxpayer, not of our political party.”

Ensuring government efficiency

During his first term serving as state auditor, Sand said his office uncovered a record amount of misspent funds. He also started a new government efficiency program called Public Innovation and Efficiencies (PIE), intending to encourage local communities to practice cost-saving measures.

“We provide best practices for saving money, and there is a PIE contest,” Sand said. “So we give recognition every year to the highest-performing cities, counties and school districts.”

Participation has increased from 300 to over 500 government entities. Sand said the program has been so effective that the Republican state auditor of Mississippi has replicated the program.

“The whole state of Iowa can be proud of that,” Sand said. “People in our office put their heads together, came up with a program that is so effective at saving money that other states are looking at and saying, ‘hey, look what Iowa is doing, let’s do that here.’”

Halbur’s campaign has a three-point plan of auditing. First, he plans to save Iowa taxpayers’ money by stopping fraud, waste and abuse. Next is supplying accountable government to all Iowans by being transparent, and last is making money for taxpayers by creating efficiencies in government.

Halbur plans to increase the rate of periodic exams to ensure government accountability. By law, cities with populations of less than 2000 people and budgets under a million dollars are only audited every eight years. Halbur believes the frequency should be increased. He would work with the Iowa Legislature to increase periodic exams to every two years and eventually every year.

“Eight years is way too long,” Halbur said. “It’s kind of like taking an 8-year-old child and saying, ‘We’ll check back with you when you get your driver’s license.’ Just think of it in those terms. A lot of things will change. I think you need to address it sooner than later.”

After serving as a prosecutor for the state attorney general’s office, Sand said there are benefits to having a state auditor’s office with a balance of legal and finance backgrounds. Sand’s office subpoenaed the University of Iowa after officials refused to disclose the names of investors in a public-private deal. The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Sand that the university had to turn over the multibillion-dollar agreement.

“I think Iowans are really tired of corruption in government,” Sand said. “So having law enforcement officials within our office really helps us address that in a way that is most effective in a courtroom for prosecution after the fact.”

Halbur served as the chief financial officer at the Iowa Alcoholic Beverage Division for three and a half years. There, he gained knowledge of the finance and budget system as well as the procurement laws. Halbur said he could take his experience from auditing the Alcoholic Beverage Division and apply that to other agencies, cities, counties and school districts.

“I am a focused, fiscal conservative that has a financial agenda,” Halbur said. “I think that is a top priority to serve Iowans as their voice and their taxpayer watchdog for all Iowans.”

Read more: Auditor Rob Sand emphasizes non-partisan approach despite GOP criticism

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Kate Kealey
Kate Kealey

Katherine Kealey is a senior majoring in journalism and political science at Iowa State University. Before interning at the Iowa Capital Dispatch, she interned at the Carroll Times Herald. She served as the editor-in-chief of the Iowa State Daily in 2022.