State Auditor Diana DiZoglio spent part of Tuesday afternoon making a clear pitch to state legislative leaders: She needed their help.
During a budget hearing, she made the case for millions more in funding for staff and other needs, and, in an accompanying letter, told the Legislature’s budget chairmen that she wanted to work with them to “expand transparency and accountability.”
What she didn’t mention: She intended to make the Legislature part of her expanded mission.
Within hours of her testimony, DiZoglio announced that she would launch an audit of the Legislature itself, casting it as a “closed-door operation” where decision-making often happens in the shadows. It would be the office’s first review of the Legislature in a century; depending on the ultimate scope of DiZoglio’s endeavor, it also may far exceed the last effort.
With the move, DiZoglio dove headfirst into politically fraught territory. A legislator herself for the last decade, the Methuen Democrat is poking a powerful body that wields wide control over her budget, and which might be wary of being subjected to an audit by someone who spent years railing against chamber leaders.
Weeks into her first term, DiZoglio is also taking a legal gambit, attorneys and former state officials said. It’s not clear whether she has the statutory or constitutional authority to dig into the Legislature. That means that should lawmakers resist her efforts — at least one has already signaled that’s likely — a judge could ultimately have to decide whether she can unilaterally probe the separate branch of government.
“There’s no question about it, it’s a significant risk,” said Doug Rubin, a political consultant who advised DiZoglio during her campaign. “But this is exactly one of the reasons why she wanted to run. For her, this is very personal. She felt the auditor’s office was the perfect office to be able to make some of these changes and bring more transparency to the Legislature.”
Currently, the House and Senate are not included among the agencies in state law that the office is tasked with auditing, which DiZoglio’s predecessor, Suzanne Bump, argued means the Legislature is not required to adhere to the office’s requests.
Like DiZoglio, Bump, too, campaigned on the premise that no corner of state government should be “beyond the reach of the state auditor.” She pushed a bill targeting the Legislature more than a decade ago, but it languished in her first term.
Her office did conduct audits of the judiciary — also a separate branch of government — but with its consent, said Gerry McDonough, a former deputy auditor and Bump’s general legal counsel for five years.
“I admire [DiZoglio’s] goal. But personally, I think it’s unconstitutional,” McDonough said in a phone interview. “We were very interested in auditing the Legislature. I think it’s a really good idea. But I think the Legislature has to make that determination.”
DiZoglio, in a statement to the Globe, was steadfast in her argument that there’s nothing in the law that prevents her from auditing the legislative bodies.
“That the former auditor chose not to audit the Legislature was her own decision, but that inaction does not require this office to maintain the status quo,” she said. “I hope legislative leaders will respect the taxpayers by cooperating with our office just as every other state entity does.”
So far, legislative leaders have mostly not engaged publicly. Neither House Speaker Ronald Mariano nor several of his top deputies responded to requests for comment Wednesday.
Senate President Karen E. Spilka indicated on Tuesday that she had little appetite to comply with DiZoglio’s requests. She said in a statement that the Senate already undergoes an audit each year by a certified public accounting firm, and “as the separation of powers clause dictates,” the Senate both manages its own business and sets its own rules.
In a brief interview Thursday outside her office, Spilka declined to say if the Senate would comply with DiZoglio’s audit or directly address her criticisms that the Legislature lacks transparency.
“She can certainly say what she says,” the Ashland Democrat said of DiZoglio. “We will continue focusing on our work. But I won’t deal with hypotheticals.”
Among her budget requests was at least an additional $1.2 million to hire more staff to complete audits on time; $500,000 for a new unit focused on the MBTA; and an extra $850,000 to hire more public fraud investigators.
Governor Maura Healey in her budget plan proposed giving DiZoglio not only a $4 million increase, but also included language that would give DiZoglio’s office four years, instead of the current three, to complete its required audits.
Whether DiZoglio’s decision to target the Legislature now complicates her funding situation remains to be seen. But that she is targeting them at all isn’t surprising to those who’ve followed her political career.
DiZoglio, who most recently served in the Senate, has often vociferously criticized leaders’ commitment to transparency. That included consistently challenging then-House speaker Robert DeLeo, a clash that peaked in 2018 when she spoke out on the House floor in violation of a nondisclosure agreement she had received after being fired as a legislative aide amid innuendo and what she described as harassment.
That fight featured prominently in her stump speeches last summer to voters and Democratic activists, as she specifically pitched auditing the Legislature as part of her campaign platform during her Democratic primary against transportation advocate Chris Dempsey.
“Not everybody on Beacon Hill is a fan of transparency and accountability,” she told one group of activists in Dedham last August.
Spilka and several members of her leadership team ultimately endorsed Dempsey over their colleague, as did more than 40 members of the House — a list that featured members of Mariano’s leadership team such as Kate Hogan, the House’s third-ranking Democrat.
DiZoglio’s cool relationship with legislative leaders didn’t hurt her at the ballot box; she topped Dempsey by 9 percentage points before easily winning November’s general election. And her willingness to challenge them, then and now, has won her praise from others.
The advocacy group, Act on Mass, on Wednesday applauded DiZoglio’s move to audit the Legislature, arguing that an independent look into its workings is “timely,” given, in part, a recent Senate vote to strip away term limits for the chamber’s president.
“We urge the Auditor to consider this worrisome anti-democratic trend during the course of the audit,” said Erin Leahy, the group’s executive director.
The scope of DiZoglio’s review appeared, at the outset, to be broad. She indicated in letters to Spilka and Mariano that it could include a review of not only hiring and spending, but how they appoint committees, the adoption or suspension of their rules, and their policies and procedures.
The auditor’s last review of the Legislature in 1922 was focused on accounting for lawmakers’ expenses, according to records reviewed by the Globe.
When contacted Wednesday by the Globe, Bump said that DiZoglio’s effort faces two immediate hurdles. One, she said, is answering whether she has the authority to audit the Legislature’s “activities.” But she also is required to conduct audits based on certain standards, which Bump said includes showing “independence and objectivity.”
That “means that an auditor who has served in the Legislature ought not be auditing the Legislature at least for a period of years,” Bump said, “especially since she has such a clear agenda.”
DiZoglio rejected that, arguing Bump conducted audits of Deval Patrick’s administration after once serving as his labor secretary. (Bump, who did not seek reelection, initially endorsed Dempsey before supporting DiZoglio after she won the nomination.)
“I understand the desire to defend her decision not to take action on this issue in the past,” DiZoglio said. “However, trying to undermine our efforts to do this good work now is unfortunate and disappointing.”
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.