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‘Wholly unnecessary’: Mass. House speaker says he will not comply with state auditor’s legislative probe

State Auditor Diana DiZoglio responds that “we are not asking for permission.”

House Speaker Ron Mariano.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The speaker of the Massachusetts House said Friday he will not comply with state Auditor Diana DiZoglio’s plans to probe the Legislature, labeling her efforts as “entirely without legal support or precedent” and escalating the high-stakes fight among Democratic leaders.

In a scathing letter, Speaker Ronald Mariano said he will not meet with DiZoglio about her plans to conduct a so-called performance audit of the chamber. The Quincy Democrat — with whom DiZoglio served for six years in the House — criticized the effort as both unconstitutional and “wholly unnecessary” because, he argued, the House already discloses its financial information online.

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“The people of the Commonwealth are the final arbiters of the performance of their duly elected representatives. As those duly elected representatives, we safeguard these constitutional protections not because of institutional jealousies but because the Massachusetts Constitution guarantees ‘the people of this Commonwealth . . . the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves,’” Mariano wrote in a two-page letter to DiZoglio.

“For an executive officer to claim any authority over the General Court is to suggest an authority over the people themselves,” he added.

Mariano sent his formal response more than two weeks after DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat, said she was launching a probe of the Legislature. In announcing her effort, she criticized the Legislature for being a “closed-door operation” where some committee votes are private and major legislation is routinely pushed through “in the dark of night.”

The scope of DiZoglio’s review appeared, at the outset, to be broad. She indicated in March 7 letters to Senate President Karen E. Spilka and Mariano that her office’s audit could review not only hiring and spending, but how the chambers appoint committees, the adoption or suspension of their rules, and their policies and procedures. She also said she planned to set up a meeting with legislative leaders and asked that they make any requested records and information available within 72 hours of the date of request.

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The very act of investigating the branches, however, raised an array of political and legal questions, and quickly plunged the first-term auditor into a thorny dispute with the same Democratic leaders who control her budget.

In a statement Friday, DiZoglio called Mariano’s response “disappointing,” and said she intended to conduct her audit “as planned to help increase transparency, accountability and equity for everyday families.”

“We are not asking for permission,” she said.

State Auditor Diana DiZoglio belts out her version of “Walking on Sunshine” at the annual St. Patrick's Day Breakfast in South Boston this month. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Spilka had previously indicated that she, too, would not comply with DiZoglio’s requests. She, like Mariano, argued in a statement that the chamber already undergoes an audit each year by a certified public accounting firm, and that “as the separation of powers clause dictates,” the Senate both manages its own business and sets its own rules.

A DiZoglio spokeswoman said the Senate has yet to provide a formal response to the auditor.

Mariano, in his letter Friday, wrote that there are “no expenditures” — the phrase was both underlined and in bold — of the House that aren’t already posted online for the public to review.

He said the chamber’s decisions on budgeting, legislation, rules, and other procedures are the “sole constitutional purview” of the House, and any attempt to audit them “exceeds your legal authority and is unconstitutional.”

DiZoglio served a combined 10 years across both legislative chambers, and last year campaigned for auditor on a promise to dive into the Legislature’s operations. But whether she has the legal authority to do so has been unclear.

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Currently, the House and Senate are not included among the agencies in state law that her 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.

During her first term, Bump pushed a bill that would allow her to audit the Legislature, but it languished in, well, the Legislature. Bump’s former general legal counsel told the Globe this month that, he too, believes the auditor is not constitutionally allowed to audit the legislative branches.

DiZoglio has rejected that view, arguing that there is nothing in the statute that specifically prevents her office from conducting an audit of the two chambers. DiZoglio noted that her office last reviewed the Legislature in 1922 as part of an audit focused on accounting for lawmakers’ expenses, according to records reviewed by the Globe.

But House leaders on Friday say they don’t believe that serves as precedent. Mariano’s office released a separate letter from the chamber’s legal counsel, who argued that the century-old review was “merely an accounting” of the revenue, expenses, and debt of various state agencies, and is not similar to the performance audit DiZoglio is seeking to conduct.

House counsel James Kennedy also cited the Supreme Judicial Court’s interpretation of the state Constitution’s separation of powers clause, saying it creates a “complete and rigid division of all powers among the three branches.”

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“To concur with the Auditor that her office has the authority to conduct an audit of the House of Representatives would require one to concur with the conclusion that a statute may, by implication, permit what the Constitution of the Commonwealth explicitly and repeatedly prohibits,” Kennedy wrote.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.