Commentary: Auditing the Auditors

By David Watts Barton, Sacramentopress.com, July 26, 2010

As we in the tiny Sacramento Press newsroom digested the news that a newly hired deputy city auditor was resigning – as a result of one lunchtime phone call to auditor Gerald Silva from our city hall reporter, Kathleen Haley – I marveled at several things.

First, that on a summer Monday, the Sacramento Press’ inquiries had caused a city official to resign. Despite what people might think, that’s not the most rewarding thing a journalist can do. But when the official and his boss have hidden damaging information from city staff and the public – in this case that Silva was fired for his role in a sexual harassment lawsuit while working for San Jose’s city government – well…that’s good stuff.

But there’s more to marvel at. I’m still dumbfounded that anyone in the Internet age, when the “paper trail” of a life is searchable by anyone with curiosity and a computer, where old stories never, ever die, bespeaks either a disconnect from reality or an arrogance that borders on delusional.

Did Silva and his boss, City Auditor Jorge Oseguera, really think that someone would not point this out? Did they not know that when one Googles the name Gerald Silva, the FIRST item to come up regards his firing?

One can make the argument that Silva paid for his mistakes, and that everyone deserves a fresh start. Fair enough. And perhaps the fact that the new city auditor staff consists of four males means that there was no chance of a female staffer suffering sexual harrasment. But that seems small consolation.

Where this leaves new City Auditor Oseguera is up in the air. His judgement and even his honesty are in question now. If I were (Interim City Manager) Gus Vina, I would feel betrayed on a pretty fundamental level. (Update: According to an email from city spokeswoman Amy Williams, “the Auditor Office is autonomous….The Interim City Manager was not aware of Mr. Silva’s reasons for leaving his former employment.”)

And then there’s the marvelous irony of these guys working in a government office the whole POINT of which is to shine a light on city operations and budgets, to find out what’s working and what isn’t. To find the truth.

Which brings us to the source of this truth: John Q. Public. That is, of course, a screen name of one of The Sacramento Press’ readers, who gave Kathleen the tip about Silva’s history. We don’t know who he is. But he was right, as was San Jose resident and SacPress reader Clay Reigel, who also commented regarding Silva on a SacPress story about Oseguera’s hiring.

But perhaps most marvelous of all is how well this process fits with what The Sacramento Press is all about: Giving a voice to people to impact our local government and community. While I for one would much rather be writing about how the new auditor and his assistant were combing through city expenses looking for and finding ways to end waste and fraud in the government, I am happy that we have been able to expose what is, by any measure, a fraud.

Because at the end of the day, despite politicians’ use of the words “transparency” and “accountability,” and despite the well-meaning work of a city auditor’s office, the only real sure defense against dishonesty in local government is a free, open press. And The Sacramento Press is about as free and open as it gets these days.