Who will be Vermont's auditor? Scrutinizing the scrutinizers
Doug Hoffer was in downtown St. Albans on a recent Tuesday night for the grand opening of the Franklin County Democratic Party headquarters. Dressed sharply in a dark suit and gold tie, he exuded a quiet confidence as he stepped to the microphone to address the 40 or so party faithful munching on deviled eggs and supermarket shrimp.
Hoffer’s three-minute elevator speech was a matter-of-fact explanation of why he’s running — for the second time — for state auditor.
“I’m a numbers guy. That’s what I do,” Hoffer said with professorial gravitas. “It’s the only job in state government I’m interested in. The bottom line is, I have a talent for identifying and asking tough questions. My work has been evidence-based, which is the core of the auditor’s work.”
When voters go to the polls on November 6, after picking candidates for president, governor, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, they will face a choice for state auditor — arguably the most important statewide office most Vermonters never think about. As state government’s official watchdog, the auditor is charged with preventing waste, fraud and abuse, assessing the state’s fiscal health, and determining whether taxpayers are getting the biggest bang for their buck.
Historically, the auditor wasn’t much of a force in Montpelier. Then, in 1992, a Harvard-educated lawyer named Ed Flanagan turned the previously moribund office into a platform for scrutinizing executive-branch policies. Flanagan frequently issued scathing reports that embarrassed the administration of then governor Howard Dean — a fellow Democrat — and earned Flanagan the nickname “bulldog.” In more recent years, the office has exposed serious problems with the state’s sex offender registry as well as fraudulent billing by providers who serve the mentally ill.
Hoffer worked as a contractor for eight years in the office he now seeks. He’s a fusion candidate — running on both the Democratic and Progressive ballots — who seems genetically predisposed to digesting dry-as-toast facts and figures into sober policy recommendations.
His weaknesses? He’s never held elected office — which some describe as a virtue for an auditor — and his sole management experience was working as the head maître d’ more than 30 years ago at the legendary Alice’s Restaurant.
In stark contrast, his opponent is Republican candidate Vince Illuzzi, a 32-year state senator and Essex County state’s attorney who seems to know everything about — and everyone in — state government. First elected during Ronald Reagan’s first term, Illuzzi is the consummate Montpelier insider and a master of making deals across party lines.
Illuzzi has the endorsement of outgoing Auditor Tom Salmon, a Democrat-turned-Republican who is retiring after three terms. Hoffer, 61, ran against Salmon two years ago. In 2009, the incumbent auditor got busted for drunk driving, and a video of his arrest was released to the press during the 2010 campaign — the result of a lawsuit brought forth by Burlington attorney and Hoffer supporter John Franco.
But Salmon’s sins didn’t hand Franco’s favorite a win. Hoffer lost the general election by six percentage points, a defeat some observers blamed on his seeming aversion to pressing flesh and kissing babies. This time around, though, the candidate appears to be trying much harder at retail politics. Hoping to build name recognition outside of Chittenden County, Hoffer has attended the opening of virtually every Democratic headquarters in the state and has a calendar that includes at least 69 scheduled events between March and October.
Hoffer is an attorney by training but has never practiced law. A self-employed policy analyst who works largely out of his Burlington condo, he came to the Queen City in 1988 to work for then-mayor Bernie Sanders in the city’s Community and Economic Development Office.
He left the city’s employ in 1993 and found a niche in the private sector, generating progressive-minded policy analyses for nonprofit groups. Beginning in 1997, Hoffer authored the Peace & Justice Center’s “Vermont Job Gap Study,” a series of 10 reports on the impacts of wage inequalities, economic development programs and Vermont’s dependence on imports. He’s done similar analyses for legislative committees, including Illuzzi’s.
“I’ve enjoyed working with Doug,” says Illuzzi, who seems to avoid mentioning his opponent by name unless directly asked about him. Indeed, Illuzzi admits he respects Hoffer’s work — “I invited him to my committee when other committees would not” — but argues that the auditor’s job requires a solid working knowledge of state government beyond “crunching the numbers.”
For his part, Hoffer admits he has neither a knack nor a great love for self-promotion or street-level politicking. Tellingly, when a friend recently helped him set up a Facebook campaign page, Hoffer was irked that the social networking site wouldn’t let him choose another suitable tagline than “politician.”
Hoffer doesn’t sound like one. He speaks eloquently, in a baritone voice, without resorting to the typical tools of the trade: well-practiced talking points, emotional appeals or humble-roots anecdotes. Those who don’t know Hoffer might mistake his confidence for conceit, his low-key demeanor for lack of passion. An accomplished amateur golfer, he comes across as warm and fuzzy as a nine iron.
Over the years, lawmakers and journalists alike have felt Hoffer’s wrath, especially when they flub the facts. In blistering blog comments and scolding emails, the self-described “Data Man” always endeavors to set the record straight. “He could prove to be a real headache to [Gov. Peter] Shumlin,” says University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson.
But many people who have worked with Hoffer praise his blunt, no-nonsense style. They argue that his sharp mind, obsessive attention to detail and unwillingness to sugarcoat his findings are the very qualities that would make him an excellent state auditor.
But first, Hoffer needs to get elected. To do so, he’ll have to beat one of the most tireless lawmakers in Vermont. Illuzzi, a Montpelier native who resides in Newport, is arguably Vermont’s most influential Republican — one of only two GOP lawmakers to chair a committee in the Democrat-dominated Senate.
Described by friends and colleagues as energetic, gregarious and charismatic, Illuzzi is the consummate 11th-hour deal maker who rarely fails to bring home the bacon for his Northeast Kingdom constituents. After more than three decades in the Senate, he’s rightfully earned the nickname “King of the Kingdom.”
So far, Illuzzi has garnered the backing of at least seven Democratic colleagues in the Senate, including Dick Sears, Hinda Miller, Bill Carris, Bob Hartwell, Dick Mazza, Jeanette White and Peter Galbraith, the last of whom, Illuzzi makes sure to mention, “sent me a thousand bucks.”
Illuzzi also counts as supporters former Democratic state auditor Liz Ready and former Brattleboro independent representative Daryl Pillsbury, whose liberal-minded district couldn’t be more politically different from Illuzzi’s.
“All politicians like to think they’re great and get a lot done. But when I was up there, Vince was one of the few people who really got things done,” says Pillsbury, who served as vice chair of the House Institutions Committee when Illuzzi chaired Senate Institutions. “ He always surprised me with his independence.”
A self-described populist Republican in the mold of former Vermont governor and U.S. senator George Aiken, Illuzzi has also secured nearly every union endorsement. Among them: Vermont’s Teamsters, the Vermont-National Education Association, the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont, the Vermont Troopers Association, the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association and the Vermont State Employees Association. The Vermont State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, is the only union that has so far sided with Hoffer.
Asked why the Teamsters supported Illuzzi, the union’s Ron Rabideau says it’s because of all he’s done for “working Vermonters, not just the labor unions.” Rabideau couldn’t offer an opinion on Hoffer, noting, “I never heard from him.”
Another longtime Democratic labor activist, who asked not to be identified, offered a different explanation for backing Illuzzi. “Vince scares people,” he said. “They don’t know what he’s going to do if you cross him.”
Illuzzi may be from the Northeast Kingdom, but he was right at home last Friday at the Vermont Grocers’ Association trade show in Essex Junction, where dozens of local food and alcohol retailers, distributors and suppliers were hawking their wares and pressing flesh. Even before he got inside the expo center, Illuzzi had already handed out a dozen campaign cards and recognized several old acquaintances.
Illuzzi had his picture taken with a “Got Milk?” stick-on mustache at the Hood booth — “Anything to help the farmers,” he remarked — grabbed a free hot dog at the McKenzie Country Classics booth, then made his way over to the Leonardo’s table, which was offering free samples of its pizza sauce.
“See that girl over there?” he whispered, gesturing to Leonardo’s co-owner Sara Byers. “She was a legislative page back in 1986 or ’87.”
Clearly, this was comfortable territory for Illuzzi, and not just because of all the free food and alcohol. As chair of the powerful Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee, Illuzzi oversees the Vermont Department of Labor, the Department of Liquor Control and the Department of Commerce. In short, virtually every businessperson in the room had been affected by his work.
During a break in the action, Illuzzi talked about his vision for the auditor’s job.
“Auditing is not just about the numbers,” Illuzzi said. “As auditor, I think I can do a great job of making state government run more efficiently, ensuring that money is spent where it’s supposed to be, and making recommendations to the legislature that will make it much more productive.”
But Illuzzi, who was first elected to the Senate at age 27 — he turned 59 this week — would also need to transition from being the glad-handing, backslapping politician to a state official who cannot hand out perks or do favors for political supporters. Is there a risk of having a career politician in the auditor’s office?
“There’s a danger to having too many friends in high places,” says George Thabault, who spent eight years working under Democratic and Republican auditors. “You might fail to hold them accountable, or water down your findings, if your office is investigating the program of a friend.”
Illuzzi counters that such an assessment assumes the auditor has an “adversarial relationship” with the people he audits, he says. “By and large, it’s not adversarial. You need to cultivate relationships so that agency and department heads, and rank-and-file employees, are willing to share with you their experiences and observations to make things work better.”
As auditor, Illuzzi says he would also “focus on transparency,” with a thorough assessment of the audits done in the last decade by his predecessors to see what, if anything, resulted from their recommendations. Illuzzi insists he has no aspirations for higher office. “I’ve been in the Senate for 32 years,” he says. “After that long, it’s time to get out or do something different.”
Earlier this year, Illuzzi publicly floated the idea of running for attorney general but backed off after polls showed him trailing Democratic incumbent Bill Sorrell in a hypothetical matchup. So he pivoted to the auditor’s job — the only open seat in the statewide slate this year.
Illuzzi had to know that running for either position — top cop or chief watchdog — would bring up his own history of legal transgressions. The Vermont Bar Association’s Professional Conduct Board has reprimanded Illuzzi five times and twice suspended his law license.
While working as an Orleans County deputy state’s attorney in 1980, Illuzzi got a speeding ticket, then asked his employer to submit a false statement saying he was en route to an emergency call when he wasn’t. Less than a year later, he was reprimanded again for allowing a cop to interview a suspect without a lawyer present.
The most serious sanction came in 1996, when the Judicial Conduct Board suspended him for 18 months for filing three complaints against a judge and an attorney “with reckless disregard of obvious facts and basic legal principles.” The board said it would not reinstate Illuzzi’s license until it had “clear and convincing evidence” that his resumption of practicing law “would neither be detrimental to the integrity and standing of the bar or the administration of justice, nor subversive of the public interest.”
In a 1999 Boston Globe profile, writer Jon Margolis dubbed him “the Rascal King of the North.”
Illuzzi doesn’t make excuses, but explains all this happened a long time ago.
“I’ve learned from my mistakes,” he says. “In large part, those were mistakes I made due to inexperience and immaturity ... If you talk to the attorneys with which I work, I expect they would tell you that I’m firm and fair.”
Illuzzi has never claimed to be a choirboy, says former Seven Days political columnist and Northeast Kingdom native Shay Totten, who worked in the auditor’s office under Ready. Illuzzi has a reputation for “pulling fast ones” and inserting language into bills at the last minute, Totten adds. “But that’s how he plays the game. He does what he has to for his district.”
Illuzzi goes beyond that, according to former auditor Ready, who served with Illuzzi in the state Senate and accompanied him to a recent taping of the news program “You Can Quote Me.” Sounding more like campaign manager than close friend, she touts Illuzzi’s work over the years for “the little guy” — prison inmates, seniors, the homeless and the mentally ill.
“Vince is not an ideologue,” Ready argues. “He’s not going to take the political viewpoint. He’s not out there trying to prove he’s right. He’s taking the side of the taxpayer.” She talks up his efforts in 2002 to buy back the hydroelectric dams along the Connecticut River and this year to recoup $21 million for Vermont ratepayers from a utility merger — both of which were unsuccessful.
What does Ready, who had her own ethical breach in office, say about Illuzzi’s less-than-spotless reputation?
“From what I’ve seen, he’s taken stands that not a lot of people have taken that have benefited many, many people,” she says. “That would be my definition of ethical.”
On “You Can Quote Me,” Illuzzi suggested that if elected auditor, he’d keep his part-time gig as Essex County state’s attorney. (Illuzzi is not seeking re-election for his Senate seat.) Later, when asked how long he planned to double dip on the taxpayers’ dime, Illuzzi modified his earlier remark, saying he’d definitely give up the prosecutor post but only after a suitable “transition period.”
The Hoffer camp doesn’t appear to be interested in exploiting Illuzzi’s legal lapses. Attorney Franco, who is working with Hoffer, downplays the ethics charges against Illuzzi as ancient history and suggests there was a “political aspect” to them.
But Franco was more than willing to question Illuzzi’s qualifications for the job.
“Vince’s narrative is that he’s familiar with state government, but that doesn’t mean he’s got the skill set to be monitoring state spending,” argues Franco, who has known Illuzzi for “35 to 40 years” and carpooled with him to Vermont Law School. In terms of the résumé needed to do the auditor’s job, he adds, “Being a prosecutor is not very persuasive to me.”
Barbara Grimes, general manager of Burlington Electric Department, agrees. Grimes has worked closely with Hoffer for more than a decade, ever since he served on BED’s Board of Electric Commissioners. Since then, Hoffer has been producing the city-owned utility’s annual performance reports.
“We give numbers to Doug and he puts them in a shape that people can read and understand,” she says. “If they’re not easily understood, they’re just a bunch of words.”
Grimes says that she’s always been impressed with Hoffer’s insistence on not drawing conclusions that aren’t supported by the data, as well as his unwillingness to put a positive spin on bad news.
“For me,” Grimes adds, “somebody who is dedicated to producing accurate reports is much more qualified to be state auditor than a politician who has a record and history of manipulating words to get what he wants.”
Hoffer has experience in the auditor’s office: From 1993 to 2001, he worked as a paid consultant for then-auditor Flanagan during Flanagan’s four terms. Thaubault, who has worked with Hoffer, argues he is more qualified than Illuzzi to do the job and would bring a “fresh pair of eyes” to the work, without allegiance to political allies.
“Doug is very detail oriented and analytical, and he’s very careful about his opinions, basing them on research and the data,” Thaubault says. “He’s not a shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy.”
Hoffer doesn’t bring up Illuzzi’s checkered past, but says it’s fair to challenge the senator’s recent response to the “troopergate” scandal, which involved a now-retired state police sergeant accused of padding his overtime sheets and writing fake speeding tickets. Hoffer points out that Illuzzi immediately issued a press release after the scandal broke, explaining how he would address it as auditor, including a three-point action plan.
Illuzzi, he says, is “still thinking like a politician.” As auditor, Hoffer says his own response would be to pull the overtime files, analyze the data, come up with findings and then make recommendations.
“Vince skipped the hard work and said, ‘I have a three-point plan,’” Hoffer adds. “That’s not what auditors do. And that’s the problem.”
What are Hoffer’s plans for his first 100 days in office? “Nothing sexy,” he says, then ticks off three projects he’d dive into right away. Among them, he would immediately undertake a review of the state’s personal service contracts with nongovernmental entities, which now tally about $300 million. For perspective, Hoffer points out, that’s more than the total budget of the Agency of Transportation.
Hoffer would also look at whether the tax department is collecting all the money owed to it. How much might Vermont be losing out on uncollected taxes? In classic Hoffer style, he won’t hazard a guess.
“It might be $20. It might be $20 million,” he says. “But until we review the data, we just don’t know.”
Totten suggests that Hoffer is smart to attack Illuzzi’s policies but not his character, since such tactics nearly always backfire in Vermont politics. When Barton’s Chris Braithwaite ran for Illuzzi’s Senate seat in 1992, trumpeting the senator’s ethical issues, he lost badly. In his own district, it seems, Illuzzi’s character quirks aren’t viewed as shortcomings.
“When they look at Vince, they see someone fighting for them and pushing back,” Totten says. “Look at how the Kingdom folks deal with getting harassed by the police. They drive a tractor over a bunch of police cars.”
UVM’s Nelson concurs. “It’s the Kingdom,” he says, “and the Kingdom operates in an us-them mentality. ‘He’s one of us, and we’ll keep sending him back.’”
Will Illuzzi’s practical populism resonate in the rest of Vermont? No doubt. But this year, the auditor’s race may be decided by someone other than Illuzzi or Hoffer — namely, the man at the top of the Democratic ticket: Barack Obama.
“I don’t think the ethical questions are going to sink Vince as much as being a Republican,” Nelson predicts. “Anyone with a D after their name will win.”