Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, one of the state’s most ambitious political figures, has appealed to Democratic voters by promising to pursue corporate wrongdoers.

Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, one of the state’s most ambitious political figures, has appealed to Democratic voters by promising to pursue corporate wrongdoers.

Rick Bowmer/AP

Just saying the words “secretary of state” might sound sleep-inducing.  

But in Oregon, this is also the public official primarily charged with rooting out waste, fraud and inefficiency in state government.  

Oregon’s secretary of state is uniquely powerful: Ours is, for example, the only secretary of state in the nation in charge of auditing state government. That might interest voters who said in a recent poll conducted for OPB that, on average, they think 44 cents out of every dollar spent by state government is wasted.  

As it happens, figuring how to deploy the state’s auditors also happens to be a crucial issue in this year’s wide-open race for secretary of state. Three Democrats and two Republicans are running for the seat.  

Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, one of the state’s most ambitious political figures, has appealed to Democratic voters by promising to pursue corporate wrongdoers, particularly those who do business with the state.  

His Democratic rivals, state Sen. Richard Devlin of Tualatin and state Rep. Val Hoyle of Eugene, claim Avakian would take his eye off the ball when it comes to watching state government. The state is already hard-pressed to keep watch over billions of dollars of spending by more than 40,000 state employees, they say.   Former state Rep. Dennis Richardson of Central Point and Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken also say the state’s auditors have plenty to do without taking on corporations.  

Avakian, who has been labor commissioner since 2008, says his expansive view of the office fits with the activist approach he’s taken to enforcing minimum wage and civil rights laws. Most notably, he received both national praise and brickbats for levying a record $135,000 fine against a Gresham bakery that refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding.  

Avakian attacks “corporate special interests” in one of his campaign ads. And he said at a City Club of Portland debate last week that he wants to make sure “our tax dollars are protected not just when they are sitting in a state agency but when the hundreds of millions of dollars leave those agencies into the private sector to corporations – never to be heard from again.”  

Hoyle, who stepped down from her position as House majority leader to run for secretary of state, said Avakian is “making promises that resonate in a political year,” particularly in a Democratic primary.   But she said Avakian has more power to go after companies that commit many kinds of wrongdoing, such as violating minimum wage laws, in his current job.  

“We have really important things we need to highlight in state government,” Hoyle said.  

Devlin, who co-chairs the Legislature’s powerful budget committee, agreed.  

“I think he’s sort of moving away from the core function of state government,” Devlin said of Avakian. “I mean, state government is not small.”  

There’s no doubt state auditors are hard-pressed. The agency has 72 full-time positions, with 13 vacancies, according to the secretary of state’s office. Half of its staff time involves financial audits of state agencies, many of which are required by state or federal rules. With the remaining resources, the division can conduct performance audits aimed at figuring out how to make government work better.

“What government audits are we not going to do to look at a corporation?” said Gary Blackmer, who recently retired as state auditor. “It’s hard for us not to look at (the Department of Human Services) and look at a business instead.”  

Blackmer said it’s often a juggling act. Auditors could easily spend the bulk of their time looking at perennial problem areas of state government, such as the child welfare system. But what about K-12 education, which takes up 40 percent of the general fund budget? Or how about how the state serves the unemployed?  

Blackmer said he was particularly proud of one recent audit that prodded human services officials to put more resources into getting jobs for welfare recipients as the recession eased. But he said he also regrets some investigations he never had the time or resources to get to – such as tracking what happened to mental patients when Dammasch State Hospital closed in 1995.  

He said it sometimes make sense to look at how government agencies are overseeing private contractors. But generally, he added, the audits focus on whether government agencies have proper controls in place.  

Blackmer said that his top priority for expanding the auditor’s office would be to do more scrutiny of technology projects. As the state’s failed Cover Oregon health care website demonstrates, that’s been an ongoing problem in government.  

Avakian said auditors should be “nimble” enough to watchdog state government while jumping on private contractors when red flags appear.

“I know how to hold wrongdoers accountable,” said Avakian, who added that he didn’t intend to immediately ask the Legislature for new resources for the audits division.

Avakian is halfway through his current term as labor commissioner and will remain in the powerful job if he loses. Devlin also is halfway through his Senate term and could remain a key budget leader. Hoyle, however, is in the last year of her legislative term.