‘He’s doing their bidding’: Critics say Republicans use auditor general for partisan attacks

The state watchdog says officials do not do ‘live’ media interviews

By: - April 17, 2022 3:45 am

Office of the Auditor General in Lansing | Susan J. Demas

When the Michigan State Capitol opened in 1879, the auditor general’s office was meant to be one of the largest spaces within the expansive new building — a space worthy of a role that’s essentially the state’s chief fiscal watchdog.

Elijah E. Myers, who designed Michigan’s Capitol in Lansing and was one of the most prolific architects of public buildings during the Gilded Age, prominently located the auditor general’s office on the first floor of the new Capitol. There, the state’s 17th auditor general, W. Irving Latimer of Big Rapids, employed a large team — including at least 68 clerks, 31 of whom were women. 

It was a massive operation for the auditor general, a position meant to hold elected and government officials accountable for the way they use public funds. 

Created in 1836, the auditor general was an elected position until voters approved a new state Constitution in 1963. Since then, the auditor general must be a certified public accountant (CPA) and is appointed to eight-year terms by a majority vote of the Legislature. There are no term limits for the auditor general. 

The position has boasted well-known names, from Emil Anneeke, a German revolutionary who became a vocal abolitionist in the United States and Michigan’s auditor general in 1863, to Otis Smith, a lawyer and NAACP activist who was the first African American to serve in a senior state government office in Michigan when he was elected as auditor general in 1959. 

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

The scope of the auditor general is a huge undertaking — the position has the authority to conduct post-financial and performance audits of all of the state’s branches, departments, offices, boards, authorities, and other institutions — and one that, while appointed by the Legislature, was never meant to be partisan.

But in recent years — namely during Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration — some political analysts, Democratic lawmakers and election officials said they’ve seen the office change. Specifically, they told the Michigan Advance that some Republican lawmakers are using Auditor General Doug Ringler and his office for increasingly partisan attacks meant to undermine the Democratic governor and her 2022 reelection effort.

“My view is the Republican-controlled Legislature is using the office of auditor general in a partisan way and for partisan purposes, and the auditor general is completely beholden to them,” said Mark Schauer, a former Democratic congressman from Michigan, state lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate. “[Ringler] has a conflict of interest. The auditor general is appointed by this Republican Legislature, is subject to reappointment by them; they pay his salary. He’s doing their bidding, and it’s misleading the public.”

Those interviewed by the Advance painted a picture of some Republican lawmakers misconstruing auditor general reports, such as a recent one on COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities, and repeatedly holding legislative hearings on auditor general reports aimed more at launching partisan attacks at the governor and her administration than holding government officials accountable. Some of those interviewed, including Schauer, described an auditor general’s office that is increasingly willing to participate in what they called a Republican agenda to turn what is meant to be a watchdog office into a partisan attack dog.

“I can reflect on my 12 years in the Legislature — half under Gov. [John] Engler and half under Gov. [Jennifer] Granholm, administrations of two different parties — and the auditor general’s office always played it straight and stuck to their statutory authority and responsibilities,” Schauer said. “…The auditor general under this Republican Legislature is behaving very differently.”

Thomas McTavish, who was appointed by a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, served as auditor general while Schauer was in office. McTavish was the auditor general from 1989 through 2014.

The auditor general’s office — which is now located on the sixth floor of the Victor Center in downtown Lansing, has 154 employees as of September 2021, and boasts an annual budget of about $27.1 million — strongly disagreed with this characterization and said the office prides itself on being nonpartisan and working with people across the political spectrum. 

It’s outrageous. If they’re getting paid by the public, it makes no sense to me why they wouldn’t (engage with the media). It raises questions of accountability and transparency and what their motivations may be.

– David Armiak is the research director at the Madison, Wisc.-based Center for Media and Democracy

A spokesperson for the auditor general’s office, Kelly Miller, wrote in an email that in 2014 Ringler “was selected by a legislative committee composed of members of both parties and chambers equally, followed by a unanimous vote of the sitting legislators in both chambers.”

Previously, the director of internal audit for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, Ringler’s eight-year term ends in 2022 and he is up for reappointment this year. Prior to serving as the auditor general, Ringler worked in state government for more than three decades. A certified public accountant and certified internal auditor, Ringler is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, Michigan association of Certified Public Accountants and the Institute of Internal Auditors. He previously received the “Internal Auditor of the Year” award from the Institute of Internal Auditors’ Lansing chapter.

When contacted by the Advance in January and again in March for comment for this story, Miller said the office does not conduct “live” interviews with the media. The office did provide the following emailed statement in regards to the criticism that Republican lawmakers are using the auditor general’s office for increasingly partisan purposes under the Whitmer administration:

“We are a nonpartisan office and work for the entire Legislature. Our interest is solely to fulfill our Constitutional mandate to conduct post-audits and offer opportunities for improvement that benefit those operating State government programs as well as the users of state government. Our audits often involve issues of legislative and public interest and, throughout history, have been a part of conversations in both chambers and both caucuses. 

“We are independent, objective, and transparent, and go through extraordinary lengths to ensure the accuracy of OAG reports. Audits and other projects are completed based on a risk assessment, clearly verifiable information, and availability of resources. We welcome discussions with any legislator or interested party about our audit plan, audits in progress, and completed reports. 

“Audits are performed in accordance with Generally Accepted Governmental Auditing Standards that include strict requirements related to conducting fair and impartial audits, including standards related to data reliability, sufficiency, and appropriateness. Further, these standards require a robust quality assurance process to ensure that facts are supported and reporting is not biased.  Every three years the OAG is audited by a peer review group from other states to ensure we are following these standards and have consistently received the highest rating possible for these audits.”

David Armiak is the research director at the Madison, Wisc.-based Center for Media and Democracy. The auditor general’s office giving a blanket statement that it does zero live interviews with the media is “shocking,” said Armiak. He added that he can’t think of “any examples in any other states where [a taxpayer-paid office] would” say they refuse all interviews with the media.

“It’s outrageous,” Armiak said. “If they’re getting paid by the public, it makes no sense to me why they wouldn’t [engage with the media]. It raises questions of accountability and transparency and what their motivations may be.”

Auditor General Doug Ringler at a joint Oversight Committee hearing | Screenshot

The evolution of Whitmer’s nursing home order

Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan in March 2020 and nursing homes across the country faced soaring numbers of cases and deaths, Whitmer issued an executive order aimed at protecting seniors and their caretakers throughout Michigan.

The April 2020 order, No. 2020-50, included a long list of requirements for long-term care facilities — which the order defined as nursing homes, homes for the aged, adult foster care facilities, and assisted living facilities. It mandated the facilities not evict a resident for nonpayment, canceled communal dining, and created regional “hubs” that would accept COVID-19 patients from long-term care locations that could not properly care for them due to issues like a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), among other initiatives.

As part of the executive order, Whitmer said any long-term care facility that had a dedicated COVID-19 unit and an adequate amount of PPE for employees working with pandemic patients must “admit anyone that it would normally admit as a resident, regardless of whether the individual has recently been discharged from a hospital treating COVID-19 patients.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at Lansing Community College, Feb. 16, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

It has been this part of the executive order, which was rescinded in May 2020, that ended up being lambasted and often distorted or outrightly mischaracterized by Republican lawmakers. Not long after the order was first issued, Republicans accused Whitmer and her administration of forcing nursing homes to accept sick COVID-19 patients and causing unnecessary deaths. 

“Instead of protecting our most at-risk seniors from the coronavirus, Gov. Whitmer issued an executive order in April forcing nursing facilities with less than 80% capacity to create space to accept patients with COVID-19, regardless of their ability to care for them and isolate the spread of the virus,” state Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) wrote in a September 2021 op-ed.

These accusations — which the governor, state health officials and nursing home representatives have said are untrue — have dominated Republican-led hearings on the state’s nursing home policies, Republicans’ social media posts and op-eds in news outlets. Fueled by these accusations, federal lawmakers from Michigan asked Attorney General Dana Nessel to investigate the executive order’s impact (which she declined to do, calling the request “partisan”), and the Trump administration pushed for a federal investigation into Whitmer and other Democratic governors who they accused of covering up nursing home deaths. 

Ultimately, the federal government opted not to investigate nursing home deaths in Michigan.

“It’s a Republican talking point” that nursing homes were forced to take COVID-19 patients who had been discharged from a hospital, Whitmer said on C-SPAN in March 2021.

“If nursing homes were going to take patients back after they’d been hospitalized, we had very strict protocols about how they would stay safe, and we made sure they were stocked with PPE,” the governor continued. “So there was never a mandate to receive COVID patients, despite what I think Republican communications have been.”

‘That report was something beyond anything I ever saw as a legislator’

In January, the auditor general’s office published one of its most-cited reports, one on COVID-19 deaths in Michigan’s long-term care facilities. 

Republicans have been laser-focused on the issue for nearly the entirety of the pandemic, while at the same time fighting Whitmer tooth-and-nail on most of her pandemic orders meant to curb the spread of the virus. They ultimately rescinded her ability to issue such executive orders at all in 2021, after the state Supreme Court did the same.

While the auditor general’s office emphasized in its statement to the Advance that it is nonpartisan, Schauer and others said otherwise.

Mark Schauer

“The intent of the office of auditor general is to promote good and effective governance,” Schauer said. “The intent is not to provide ammo for political campaigns, and I think that’s what we saw in the long-term care reporting audit. …That report was something beyond anything I ever saw as a legislator. I think there needs to be a change in how audit reports are written, how they’re used by the Legislature. They should be a source of information and recommendations on how the state government can be improved, period.”

The report was requested in June 2021 by House Oversight Committee Steven Johnson (R-Wayland), who has publicly said COVID-19 can be mitigated with exercise and a good diet, while the overwhelming majority of health experts said the virus is most effectively prevented and mitigated by vaccines.

The auditor general agreed to do so, and on Jan. 12 issued a report that linked 8,061 COVID-19 deaths to long-term care facilities from March 2020, when the pandemic began, to July 2021. The state’s number of deaths linked to long-term care facilities is 5,675. 

State Republican lawmakers immediately jumped on the discrepancy, with at least one GOP legislator calling for Whitmer to possibly be impeached. The report also became fodder for fundraising efforts by various right-wing organizations, including Michigan Freedom Fund and Michigan Rising Action

This is despite the fact that Ringler said during a Jan. 20 joint Oversight Committee hearing on the report that the numbers differed not because the Whitmer administration was attempting to cover up deaths — but because the auditor general’s information, as asked by Johnson, included more deaths than the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is required to report under federal and state requirements.

“For the long-term care facility related deaths or linked deaths, we knew the department wasn’t tracking all of the ones that we reflected in our letter, so we didn’t feel the word ‘underreport’ was fair. We cited it as a difference,” Ringler said at the Jan. 20 hearing.

Ringler specified that the report did not show the Whitmer administration covered up nursing home deaths during the pandemic as some Republicans have falsely claimed. 

“We did an analysis in black and white. We have identified what it was we did, we identified the pluses of our work, we identified some of the warts that existed from trying to do data analytics. It’s there in black and white,” Ringler said. “We said what we mean and we mean what we said.” 

We did an analysis in black and white. We have identified what it was we did, we identified the pluses of our work, we identified some of the warts that existed from trying to do data analytics. It's there in black and white.

– Auditor General Doug Ringler on the OAG report on nursing home deaths

Ultimately, Michigan has had fewer pandemic-related deaths in nursing homes compared to the national average, according to a report from the Center for Health and Research Transformation, an independent nonprofit health policy center at the University of Michigan.

Despite this study, repeated legislative hearings that were held prior to the auditor general report and included testimony from nursing home representatives and state health officials that no long-term care facility was forced to accept a positive COVID-19 patient — another claim made by some Republicans. DHHS leaders described during hearings that they provided a voluminous amount of communication to GOP lawmakers about nursing home deaths, but Republican legislators never dropped the matter. 

Instead, they used the auditor general report as fodder for a new round of legislative hearings by the House Oversight Committee that some Democratic lawmakers slammed as nothing more than political theater meant to politically weaken the governor and her administration in an election year.

Using the auditor general’s office to conduct a review of nursing home deaths in an attempt to attack Whitmer “over her efforts to address the worst pandemic in our lifetime” translates to the Legislature “wasting its time holding partisan committee hearings and using the office of auditor general as political propaganda,” Schauer said.

“Rather than working with the governor and enacting meaningful measures to address COVID-19, they’re actually making things harder,” Schauer said. “They’re not enacting comprehensive legislation to slow the spread of COVID-19, they’re fighting schools and, in some cases, parents trying to keep their kids safe; they’re attacking local public health officials and blocking the governor at every opportunity. I think this is unfortunate and completely foreign to what I experienced as a Democrat serving under Democratic and Republican governors.”

Johnson has led the charge against Whitmer’s nursing home order, leading hearings on the OAG report and subsequent legislation, while continuing to push the consistently rebutted idea that nursing homes were forced to admit positive COVID-19 patients. 

“We will vote out House Bills 5659 & 5660 (Rep. Yaroch),” Johnson wrote in a Feb. 9 Facebook post “… This legislation requires state nursing home inspectors to receive input from nursing home staff regarding state regulations on nursing homes and to pass that information on to lawmakers. Hopefully this will keep seniors safe and ensure we never have a situation like we did with Covid positive patients being put into nursing homes.”

A spokesman for Johnson said he was “not available” to comment for this story, and emails from the Advance to Johnson requesting comment were not answered.

House Oversight Chair Steven Johnson (R-Wayland) | Laina G. Stebbins

“If you watch the [Oversight Committee] hearings, especially with the auditor general, Johnson takes what they find and creates his own narrative and draws his own conclusions,” said state Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.) Brixie, the minority vice chair of the House Oversight Committee.

“The House Oversight Committee right now is nothing more than political theater produced by, directed by and starring Steven Johnson,” Brixie continued. “When you’re parodied on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ it’s a pretty good sign something is amiss.”

Not long after the November 2020 election, Saturday Night Live parodied a House Oversight Committee hearing that featured hours of election conspiracy theories from Rudy Giuliani, former President Donald Trump’s attorney, and Mellissa Carone, pushed white supremacy during a defunct GOP bid for the Michigan House. Although Johnson was a member at the time, Rep. Matt Hall (R-Marshall) was the committee’s chair.

State Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said he originally supported the Oversight hearings on nursing home deaths, which soared both statewide and in the country during the beginning of the pandemic. 

“I thought that was absolutely appropriate,” Irwin said. “But what frustrates me is when you’re in an Oversight hearing, like on nursing homes, and folks continue to press lines they’ve known have been debunked and aren’t true.”

The Republicans didn’t have any kind of hearings like this when (Rick) Snyder was governor because it was all within their party, but now that we have a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled Legislature, they’re using the Oversight Committee and the auditor general as political tools

– Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.)

Irwin said the nursing home hearings went from valid inquiries about COVID-19 deaths at long-term care facilities during the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020 to Republicans using the issue to repeatedly criticize the Whitmer administration — particularly with the auditor general’s report on long-term care facility deaths during the pandemic. A recent analysis of the auditor general’s nursing home report from Nessel’s office also noted that the report specifies the Whitmer administration did not intentionally misrepresent the number of COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities.

“In the first hearing we had about nursing homes in the Senate, [the Department of Health and Human Services] came forward,” Irwin said. Some Republican colleagues pulled out executive orders and said, ‘It looks like you’re going to force nursing homes to take COVID-positive people. [Then-DHHS Director Robert] Gordon said, ‘No, we’re not.’ Even though that was the answer, and even though nursing homes testified to say no one was ever forced to take anyone, the Republicans are still repeating that line over and over and over again. Then I hear people in the public repeating it because they’re believing these Republican legislators who are saying this.”

At some point, Irwin and Brixie said, it goes from Republicans asking valid questions about nursing home deaths to political theater that’s wasting taxpayer dollars. 

“The illusion that the governor caused people to die by sending them back into nursing homes … the illusion of that is what gets the headlines, and [Johnson] knows that and that’s what he’s going for,” said Brixie. 

“The Republicans didn’t have any kind of hearings like this when Snyder was governor because it was all within their party, but now that we have a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled Legislature, they’re using the Oversight Committee and the auditor general as political tools,” Brixie went on to say. “The citizens of Michigan deserve better.”

State Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.), Nov. 3, 2021, at the Ingham County Courthouse | Laina G. Stebbins

‘They did not understand basic election administration or law’

It’s not just the nursing home deaths report that is emblematic of a shift in the way Republican lawmakers have used the auditor general’s office, election officials, Democratic legislators and policy experts said.

The auditor general’s office has conducted audits of the state Bureau of Elections throughout the years, but those audits have been relatively few and far between. For example, it conducted one in 2003 and then again in 2012. 

Beginning at the end of 2019, however, the auditor general started to more frequently investigate the Bureau of Elections — which operates under the purview of the Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. She’s come under fire from Trump and other Republicans who have pushed the conspiracy theory that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

It wasn’t, as a 2021 investigation by the Republican-controlled Senate Oversight Committee, court rulings and more than 250 state and local audits have determined. President Joe Biden won Michigan by 154,000 votes, but a long list of Republicans in Michigan, including elected officials like Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), state Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, and Republican Secretary of State candidate Kristina Karamo have continued to falsely claim that Trump won.

A sign pushing a popular right-wing conspiracy theory at a Trump Rally outside the Michigan State Capitol Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, as a joint House and Senate Oversight hearing on election “irregularities” was held | Anna Liz Nichols

Ringler’s office published a Bureau of Elections audit in December 2019 and again in March 2022.

When asked about the increased frequency, Miller, the OAG spokesperson, said the office “indicated to the Bureau of Elections in December of 2019 that we would return to audit during the next off-election year to assess” how the bureau implemented Proposal 3. Voters in 2018 overwhelmingly passed Proposal 3, which allows absentee ballots for any reason, provides the option of straight-ticket voting, and allows a citizen to register to vote up to and on Election Day.

Miller wrote “at the time of our 2019 audit, the Proposal 3 procedures had not been in place long enough, with enough post-election audits complete, for us to reach a conclusion about the processes they implemented.”

“It is our practice that if we conduct an audit at the Bureau [of Elections], we do so during a non-general election year to respect their workload during election years and to give them time to implement potential improvements before another statewide election,” Miller wrote. “They agreed with all the 2022 audit report recommendations, and we appreciate the opportunity to work with them.”

Hall cited the 2019 Bureau of Elections audit as the reason he introduced House Bill 4127, which would have required voters with unknown birth dates in the state’s Qualified Voter File to either sign and complete a pre-addressed postcard along with a copy of their driver’s license, state ID or birth certificate or present those documents in-person to their local clerk. Earlier in April, Whitmer vetoed that legislation along with House Bill 4128 — which would disqualify records in the state’s qualified voter file if an individual who hasn’t voted since the November 2000 election or has a placeholder date of birth failed to sign a postcard and provide their current address to their local clerk.

In her veto letter, Whitmer said that while she would “be proud to sign into law common-sense election reforms that strengthen our democracy,” these bills failed to do that.

“Instead, they would burden clerks and voters while increasing costs to Michigan residents,” she said. “I am therefore returning them to you without my approval.”

They did not understand basic election administration or law, and yet they were auditing the election audit.

– Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum

For the auditor general’s most recent Bureau of Elections report — which found no evidence of fraud and said local and state officials underwent accurate audits of the 2020 election — some election officials and Democratic lawmakers noted unusual, and, according to Nessel, even potentially illegal, tactics to conduct the audit, like physically going into local clerks’ offices and reauditing the 2020 election audits they’ve already completed.

“They’ve ventured into territory they don’t have statutory authority for,” Brixie said of the auditor general’s office. “… They went into the field and went to local clerks; they don’t have the statutory authority to do that.”

When the Advance asked in October 2021 why the OAG audits were being done after Nessel raised concerns, Miller said via email, “Our audit team is gathering information necessary to assess the effectiveness of the Bureau of Elections’ procedures and training. Our work is being done in accordance with the Attorney General’s opinion.”

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said when two representatives from the auditor general’s office came to her office to reaudit their 2020 election results, “They asked me to do a hand tally of the ballots, which is part of the standard audit we already do.” 

“They were unable to accurately count the vote themselves,” Byrum said. “You take out all the ballots, and my staff would read it, the local clerk would agree or not agree who the vote was for, then they’d place it in a pile. While they were doing that, [a representative from the auditor general’s office] was making hash marks. Those hash marks weren’t balancing. We said, ‘Your hash marks aren’t balancing,’ and he said, ‘Eh, close enough.’”

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, Nov. 3, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

Byrum said she does “not recall having an interaction with the auditor general’s office before they were turned on to the November 2020 election.”

“Even during my time in the Legislature I don’t have any memorable interactions with the auditor general then, either,” said Byrum, who served as a Democratic House member from 2007 to 2012.

But her interactions with the auditor general’s office this time around grew “increasingly frustrating.” 

“They did not understand basic election administration or law, and yet they were auditing the election audit,” Byrum said. Ultimately, it’s these kinds of efforts — the constant questioning of the 2020 election results — that are chipping away at the public trust in the state’s and country’s elections, Byrum said. And, she said, it seems to be an outright attack from Republicans against the Whitmer administration in an attempt to defeat the Democratic governor in the November 2022 election. 

“I think because there are Democrats at the top of the ticket, this is a way for Republicans to attack those public servants,” Byrum said of the constant auditing, including the one by the auditor general. “They’re not just attacking the Secretary of State and the local and county clerks; they’re attacking the integrity of our elections.”

An auditor general spokesperson said the office did not have a comment regarding Byrum’s statements.

Absentee vote counting process at the former TCF Center, Nov. 4, 2020 | Ken Coleman

Is change coming for the Oversight committees?

Major changes to the House and Senate Oversight committees could be on the horizon, and these revisions would likely address a large part of the politicization of the auditor general’s office, Irwin said.

Irwin and Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) announced at the end of March they want to create a permanent, bipartisan and bicameral Oversight Committee. 

The eight-person panel would have two Democrats and two Republicans from the House and two Democrats and two Republicans from the Senate. It would have a rotating chairmanship — meaning both parties would have control of the chair an equal amount of time. Currently, both the Senate and House have an Oversight Committee, and the majority party — now the GOP — has more seats on the committees that are meant to investigate a wide range of problems pertaining to the government and identify how to solve them. The majority party also controls the chairmanships.

Senate Joint Resolution O would create the committee and is tie-barred to Senate Bill 997, which details the committee’s powers. Because the resolution would amend the state Constitution, it needs at least two-thirds of each legislative chamber to be passed into law — a high bar.

This change, Irwin explained, would likely lessen at least some of the partisan politics surrounding the auditor general’s reports because it would not solely be the majority party deciding on what to hold Oversight Committee hearings and who can testify at them. The Oversight Committees have routinely held hearings on the auditor general’s investigations, which have often become highly partisan, critical of the governor and her administration, and, as with the Giuliani hearing, something of a media spectacle. 

If you don’t like what the auditor general has said, you’re going to say it’s partisan and I think that’s wrong. I’ve heard all these reports, and I think they’re very straightforward and honest.

– Rep. Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann)

Oversight Committee leadership also has been directly involved in auditor general investigations. Johnson, for example, requested that the auditor general review the COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities, which the OAG did.

“The efforts of the auditor general … are seen as very partisan,” Irwin said. “When folks see one party directing these efforts, it’s seen as overtly political. If we had a bipartisan committee, you’ll be much more likely to see public interest. It drives greater legitimacy, and it gets more attention for the work of the auditor general. And they deserve attention.”

Irwin also said that “very conservative members are trying to find something to attack in the administration and they’re asking the auditor general to go after that.” 

“I think that’s driven by the fact that we have a split government; we didn’t see the same requests from Republican members during the Snyder administration,” Irwin continued. “We didn’t have Oversight hearings on [the Flint water crisis] for months and months. Because of the leadership of Sen.  McBroom, we ended up having Oversight hearings on Flint. They were late but very much needed.” 

Sen. Ed McBroom, Oct. 7, 2021 | Allison R. Donahue

Brixie backed the proposal from Irwin and McBroom, saying the House Oversight Committee could be conducting crucial work for the public but instead is being used as a bullhorn for Johnson.

“There’s more to oversight than just looking for headlines and politicizing things, but the chair of the committee in the House is using the [office of the auditor general] for political gain,” said Brixie.

Brixie noted that while she is the Oversight Committee’s ranking Democrat, “nothing I’ve requested has ever been put on the agenda” and she doesn’t “know what’s on the agenda until it’s posted because the chair doesn’t have the common courtesy to communicate with me before the meeting.” 

Brixie also said she has requested experts speak at Oversight Committee hearings, but Johnson routinely denies those and instead amplifies the voices he wants at the hearing.

“We’re not doing our job,” Brixie said. “We’re failing the people when we show a biased, one-sided view of everything. We’ve given voice to unproven fringe elements of the pandemic. The anti-vaccination testimony we’ve heard has been deeply, deeply disturbing.”

However, Rep. Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann), a member of the House Oversight Committee, praised Johnson’s chairmanship, saying he has “done an excellent job allowing discussion in our committee.” 

“As far as partisanship, Rep. Johnson and Rep. [David] LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids), those two have a really good working relationship,” O’Malley told the Advance. “Come watch our committee; I think we’re fair.”

“I think that right now the flavor of the month is to scream partisanship, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” O’Malley added. “… I may not agree with [with Democratic lawmakers], but do I think they’re all there because they want to do good for their constituents and the people of Michigan? Yes.”

While covering Oversight Committee hearings and viewing additional footage of hearings, Advance reporters have witnessed Johnson repeatedly cutting Brixie off during questioning or not allowing her to speak. 

“This chair has this extreme power, and everything is up to the chair,” Brixie said. “That’s how it works in the House. I’ve not had anyone I’ve asked to testify be allowed to testify at a hearing ever. I’ve been asking for residents impacted by the pandemic or health experts, and he hasn’t allowed a single person to come and testify.”

Brixie emphasized that it’s not the fact that Johnson is Republican that is the problem, but rather how he uses his chairmanship. 

“There are lots of good chairs of committees on the Republican side; it has nothing to do with the party of the chair,” Brixie said. “It’s about how we treat people when we have power.”

The House Oversight Committee right now is nothing more than political theater produced by, directed by and starring (Chair) Steven Johnson.

– Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.)

Irwin said he’s optimistic the proposal from he and McBroom will pass because it’s “not as mired in the politics of the moment.” In other words: If Republicans become the minority party — which could be more likely to happen with political lines drawn by the new independent redistricting commission — they will have the comfort of knowing they still will maintain some power in the Oversight Committee, as is the case if the Democrats continue to be the minority party.

“When it comes to transparency, accountability, fighting corruption, that’s something we can come together on,” Irwin said. 

A spokesperson for McBroom did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story, but the Republican lawmaker said in a press release on the new committee proposal that “due to term limits and the frequency of varied partisan power in Michigan, it is clear we need stronger safeguards to ensure consistency in government oversight.”

“I hope this will leave a mechanism in place to protect the people from unrestrained, partisan bureaucracy and executive branch power,” McBroom said. 

Not everyone, however, is convinced that a bipartisan, bicameral Oversight Committee is needed. O’Malley said he believes the current committees are doing a competent job. He also said partisanship is not playing a major role in the Oversight Committee hearings over OAG reports and in general. 

Rep. Jack O’Malley speaks on the House floor | Laina G. Stebbins

“Is the system we have broken?” O’Malley asked. “I don’t think so.”

“There’s not just some omnipotent chair deciding every last detail,” O’Malley said, responding to criticism in other media reports that the Oversight Committee chairs hold inordinate amounts of power.

“The auditor general — that’s a bipartisan group,” O’Malley continued. “Their reports, they are just people saying, ‘Here’s what we’ve found. They’re the referees, and they’ve done a pretty good job.”

O’Malley went on to further defend the auditor general from claims of partisanship.

“If you don’t like what the auditor general has said, you’re going to say it’s partisan and I think that’s wrong,” O’Malley said. “I’ve heard all these reports, and I think they’re very straightforward and honest.”

‘A change in political mores’

As to why Republican lawmakers are politicizing the office of the auditor general, it goes beyond wanting to defeat Whitmer in the next election, said Schauer, the former congressman. 

It has to do with a “shift at the national level.” 

My view is the Republican-controlled Legislature is using the office of auditor general in a partisan way and for partisan purposes, and the auditor general is completely beholden to them. (Auditor General Doug Ringler) has a conflict of interest. The auditor general is appointed by this Republican Legislature, is subject to reappointment by them; they pay his salary. He’s doing their bidding, and it’s misleading the public.

– Former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer (D-Battle Creek)

“Donald Trump is the leader of the Republican Party,” Schauer said. “The rules and ethics have changed. We can see plenty of examples on how top Republican elected leaders in Michigan have tried to change election law to the detriment of our basic democracy.

“I think their behavior reflects a change in political mores, and it’s a big picture problem,” Schauer continued. “Ultimately, it comes down to the behavior of the Senate majority leader, the speaker of the House, their leadership and committee chairs and how they comport themselves. This kind of behavior never occurred when I was in office under several Republican leaders. These Republican leaders are redefining legislative behavior in ways that are dangerous to our governor and our democracy, and it has to change. 

“Ultimately, it will require the voters to hold them responsible.”

As far as the auditor general’s office goes, Schauer said it could “take a principled position, and I wish they would to not engage in these reviews that are for political purposes.” But, Schauer said, “I know the power of the majority leader in making these decisions and overseeing these appointed officials, and the auditor general is responsible to them.” 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Brixie said it’s “this hyperpartisan environment that we’re in” that has led Republicans to use the auditor general for partisan purposes. 

That, she said, could change with “the new district lines that are not gerrymandered” because the redrawn districts could result in “more moderate people getting elected, rather than extremes on both ends of the political spectrum.”

Office of the Auditor General in Lansing | Susan J. Demas

Brixie also criticized term limits as another part of the problem: Politicians are not in Lansing long enough to develop meaningful relationships with both members of their party and the other party that could result in less partisanship, she said. 

“The take-home message is we’re not doing the work of the people here,” Brixie said. “It’s simply political theater, that’s what our [oversight] committee hearings are. And it’s paid for by taxpayers.”

While policy experts, lawmakers and election officials said they’re not surprised to see increased politicization of a government role at a time of hyperpartisanship and political division, they stressed it must be addressed, both in order to keep government functioning and to maintain or increase public trust in government institutions and elections.

“I look at the current Legislature consistently trying to undermine the governor and politicize its role with the governor,” Schauer said. “Inherently, these are political beings but they have important work to do, and that is to solve the problems for the people of Michigan and to help make their lives better and make the state a better place. Using the office of the auditor general … to accomplish their own political objectives is a disservice to Michiganders.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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