Utah auditor race has barbs flying
Candidates tout own credentials while questioning each other’s qualifications.
Published: October 1, 2012 06:37PM
Updated: January 14, 2013 11:31PM
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Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo State Auditor John Dougall.

One candidate for state auditor dismisses his opponent as a filmmaker “puppeteer” without proper financial expertise for the job. The other says his rival has a history of trying to keep government deliberations hidden and is too beholden to like-minded donor-buddies in the Legislature.

Welcome to Round Two of a hard-hitting state auditor’s race.

In Round One in the primary election, GOP state Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, defeated 17-year incumbent Auston Johnson amid a barrage of heated barbs. Dougall and Democrat Mark Sage are continuing that now in the general election.

“He doesn’t have the financial background to do this, and doesn’t have an understanding of state government,” Dougall says of Sage. Because Sage currently is producing an animated film, Dougall referred to him as more of a “puppeteer” than a competent watchdog over the state’s $13 billion budget.

Sage — who also financially and operationally managed a variety of aircraft and weapons systems for the Air Force for decades, and has been an activist with groups seeking to reform redistricting and legislative ethics — says Dougall may be more interested in “a political agenda” than independent digging by the auditor’s office.

Meanwhile, both promise to make the office a better watchdog of how taxpayer money is spent, even though neither is an auditor or accountant. In fact, the election will usher in the first state auditor in 40 years who is not a certified public accountant.

Dougall has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, and an MBA. He is a high-tech consultant, who has served in the Legislature for 10 years and is House vice chairman of the Legislature’s main budget committee.

That experience “gives me an understanding of where the money’s going in the state, and where we have issues,” Dougall said. “I come with a business perspective.”

He said he plans to conduct performance audits to identify problems with waste or abuse while they’re small and manageable. His philosophy: “Don’t wait for a train wreck to happen.”

Beholden? • But Sage questions how independent Dougall can be.

He says Dougall may be too beholden to friends in the Legislature who helped him defeat Johnson, who had run-ins with lawmakers on audits that looked into some of them or their friends. That even led legislators at one point to give raises to all statewide elected officials but Johnson.

Current and former lawmakers, or political action committees they control, donated $16,000 to Dougall in the primary. It was about a third of what he raised, and about as much as Johnson, the incumbent Dougall defeated, was able to raise from all sources.

“I really believe that the auditor’s office needs to be totally independent of the Legislature and the executive branch,” Sage says. “Every campaign donation that I have received has been from everyday ordinary people.”

Dougall shrugs off questions about the help he got from chums in the Capitol.

“Auston didn’t lose because he picked fights with the Legislature. Auston lost because he became a complacent bureaucrat who wasn’t shaking things up enough.”

Dougall said those who know him know independence is part of his character.

“Am I a strong-willed person who stands up and speaks my mind? Absolutely. But do I also understand the legislative process and can I work with [lawmakers] to better address the duties of the auditor’s office? Absolutely.”

Sage also says the auditor’s office should be transparent. He questions if Dougall would be, given his sponsorship of HB477 — a bill critics said would gut state open-records laws and was repealed in response to large public protests. Also, he criticizes Dougall’s participation in closed-door GOP caucuses, especially on redistricting. Sage is on the board of Fair Boundaries, a group that sought an independent commission to recommend new boundaries for congressional and legislative districts.

Dougall defends his record.

Transparent • “I don’t think anyone has a better record of transparency in the Legislature than I do,” he said, pointing to his push for a public meetings-notice website, a financial transparency website and online posting of lawmakers’ conflict of interest statements.

Of HB477, he said, “Sometimes you’ve got to cut across the grain to get people’s attention so you can bring resolution.”

Even though the law was repealed, said Dougall, it led to a working group that drafted and helped pass replacement of open-records legislation that was not controversial.

Returning some of Sage’s volleys, Dougall says Sage, as a film producer, doesn’t have the financial background needed as auditor. When told he also managed some Air Force programs, he said, “How much was that? A few million dollars or something like that? This is a $13 billion budget at the state level.”

Sage says he actually managed programs “worth hundreds of millions,” such as the A-10 “Warthog” aircraft and a series of radar stations along the Arctic and some border areas. He said he built teams that won awards for efficient management and saving money.

“As a program manager, I was responsible for the planning, budgeting, management, execution and reporting of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars,” he said. The former Hill Air Force Base manager adds that it is similar to how a state auditor needs “to build a team of diverse skills and abilities” to look for efficiency and savings in state programs. Sage is also a licensed private investigator and has experience investigating fraud cases.

Beyond the barbs, the race has a softer, even humorous side as candidates seek to show how each may be the best at penny-pinching for taxpayers.

“Frugal Dougall,” as he calls himself in ads, touts that he grew up drinking powdered milk as the oldest in a family of 11 children, and bought his own children a turtle as a pet “because it eats less.” He’s proud that he paid off his mortgage in less than 15 years. He notes he only recently threw away a pair of shoes that he bought 24 years earlier, after they could no longer be repaired.

Meanwhile, Sage, after retiring as a civilian Air Force worker, has been handling the financial side of Generation Next Media, an independent film company.

He said he has looked for ways to save money — including moving much of its work from California to the Beehive State, where the cost of living and labor is cheaper.

A passionate archer, including coaching the sport at Weber State, Sage said, “I like to keep things on target. … That’s what an auditor is supposed to do.”

State auditor race

Republican John Dougall

Served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives.

Currently House vice chairman of the budget-overseeing Executive Appropriations Committee.

Has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, and an MBA.

Works as a high-tech consultant.

Democrat Mark Sage

Former “program manager” for the U.S. Air Force, overseeing a variety of aircraft and weapons systems.

Licensed private investigator, with experience investigating fraud cases.

Currently a producer for Generation Next Media, an independent film company.

Former FBI clerk, and served in Navy for six years.