Utah’s state auditor John Dougall has rocked many boats, but he has also gained bipartisan praise

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Auditor John Dougall, pictured at the Utah Capitol, Thursday, May 23, 2019.

Seven years ago, John Dougall was a conservative, transparency-minded agitator in the Utah House weighing his options after 10 years in office.

He had sponsored a notable slate of bills that helped shape the modern era of Utah government — from a successful overhaul of the state’s tax code that remains largely in place today to the colossal and bruising failure of a restrictive public records bill that prompted broad scorn and a hasty repeal two weeks after it was signed into law.

His next move came as something of a surprise to political watchers. The Highland Republican with degrees in electrical engineering and a career in the technology sector branded himself “Frugal Dougall” and mounted an intraparty challenge for state auditor against a multiple-term incumbent.

“I ran to win. I thought I had a good vision for the office,” Dougall said. My opponent "viewed the office as being the chief accountant for the state, and I viewed it as being a constitutional watchdog.”

Today, after two terms as auditor, Dougall has earned bipartisan praise while rocking many boats. The reports issued by his office have exposed alleged crimes and highlighted operational failures in effectively all corners of Utah’s public bureaucracy.

“He’s done a really good job of pushing the dialogue within government to say, ‘We can’t just get sloppy when you have people like Frugal Dougall who are going to look,' ” said Holly Richardson, a former Republican state representative who is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune’s opinion page.

Jim Dabakis, a Salt Lake City mayoral candidate and former Democratic state senator, said he thought Dougall was a “right-wing nut case” when he first ran for auditor in 2012. But in the years since, Dabakis said, Dougall has shown courage in his role, chasing the facts and issuing “blistering” reports, even when the subjects of those audits are well-connected Republicans.

“Nobody wants to be the skunk at the party,” Dabakis said. “And a great auditor, I suppose to some extent like a great prosecutor, needs to be the skunk.”

Next up for reelection in 2020, Dougall says he is likely to seek another, final term as auditor. But his name is often cited as a potential candidate for higher office, and Dougall acknowledges a distaste for uncontested elections.

“Running for auditor was not on the career plan,” Dougall said. “There’s lots of folks that want me to run for auditor and lots of folks that want me to consider something else. And I’m sure there’s many folks that want me to just go back to the private sector."

Focused, to a fault

Born in Hollywood, Calif., raised in Portland, Ore., and having worked for several years in Silicon Valley, Dougall likes to joke that his conservative ideology was bolstered by seeing "everything that didn’t work” in liberal enclaves.

The son of an accountant — the original “Frugal Dougall," he says — and the eldest of 11 children, Dougall said he grew up with a mind for budgeting, from his early days selling raspberries to neighbors, to his childhood paper route and ultimately taking a more formal bookkeeping job at a greenhouse.

“I baby-sat a lot,” he said. “Eight o’clock the day I turned 16, my dad took me to go get my license because they needed another driver in the family.”

Brigham Young University initially brought Dougall to Utah, where his family had roots — including an ancestor, Fred Perris, who was one of the original founders of The Tribune. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from BYU in 1990 and 1991, respectively, followed by an MBA in 2000.

During one of his undergraduate summers in Oregon, he attended a barbecue, where he met his now-wife, Sandy. Interviewed together, the couple described a series of false starts in their early acquaintance.

“I wasn’t impressed,” Sandy Dougall said, before John Dougall replied, “there was a girl sitting on my lap when we were introduced.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Auditor John Dougall is joined by his wife Sandy as they recall fun stories about how they met and started a life together during an interview on Thursday, May 23, 2019.

The couple began dating and several months later, after both had relocated to Utah, the relationship nearly ended when the studious John suggested Sandy go dancing with his roommate so he could finish his homework.

“Win-win-win?" John Dougall said. "Not so much.”

Sandy Dougall replied: “I preempted what I thought he was doing and broke up with him. I wasn’t going to let him have the last word.”

Despite the ostensible breakup, the pair continued to see each other and became engaged within a matter of weeks. The couple will celebrate their 30th anniversary next month.

Sandy Dougall describes her husband as hardworking, and the mathematically minded complement to her more artistic personality.

“He is the most honest person that I ever, ever have known,” Sandy said. “I just got lucky, I guess, with one of the really good ones. Whatever someone’s definition of good is, he’s my definition of a good one.”

On the subject of John Dougall’s “frugal” nickname, Sandy Dougall said he’s not a “tightwad” as some might expect. She said his approach to household finances — potentially similar to his work as auditor — is one of smart investment over wasteful spending.

“Cheap is not the same as frugal,” she said. “I define that as just being smart with your money — not throwing it here and there."

Highs and lows

In 2002, Dougall ran against multiple Republican opponents for an open seat in the Utah House created by the most recent round of redistricting.

Richardson, a first-time party delegate at the time, said she was impressed by Dougall’s work ethic and reception to her concerns about midwifery legalization.

“There were some candidates I never heard from that cycle,” Richardson said. “He came. He sat in my living room, and he wanted to know what issues were important to me.”

Later, Richardson was appointed to the Legislature and paired with Dougall as a mentee. She said he helped her with town hall meetings and navigating the “hate mail” from constituents.

“I do remember one of the things that he taught me early on,” Richardson said. “Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.”

As a legislator, Dougall sponsored bills related to transportation policy and government transparency, creating the state’s public notice and financial disclosure websites. He was also the House sponsor of the state’s last major tax-reform package, which included the move to a flat income tax rate and which is typically referred to as the “Huntsman tax cuts” for then-Gov. Jon Huntsman.

“If you don’t care who gets credit," Dougall said, “you can get a lot of stuff done.”

Legislative leaders are once again contemplating an overhaul of the state’s tax structure, and Dougall encourages patience and caution. Successful tax reform, he said, requires public discussion, economic planning and a cut to the taxpayers.

“There’s ideal tax policy and there’s popular tax policy,” Dougall said. “Usually in tax reform, you’re going to get a combination of both.”

As a lawmaker, Dougall cultivated a reputation for transparency. That put him in a position to sponsor changes to the then-20-year-old Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA, in 2011. His bill, HB477, ostensibly was meant to shield government agencies from burdensome "fishing expeditions” related to public documents. But it was drafted and deliberated behind closed doors, then dropped on the public in the final days of the legislative session and passed amid a chorus of complaints.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, speaks on the House floor.

In a rare, and scathing, front-page editorial, The Tribune called on Gov. Gary Herbert to veto the bill, describing HB477 as “a brazen assault on the people of Utah and their right to knowledgeably participate in their own government.”

“In barely 48 hours," The Tribune editorial board wrote, "the GOP majority in the Utah Legislature announced, pretended to debate and passed a piece of legislation with the clear intent of gutting what was, for the past 20 years, a model law that assured the media and the people reasonable access to the public records that they own.”

Herbert signed the bill, but in the face of unrelenting public backlash, a special session was called two weeks later to repeal it. Some supporters criticized the news media for inappropriately advocating for HB477′s defeat, while others acknowledged the disgraced law went too far.

“We messed up," then-Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, said at the time. "It is nobody’s fault but ours.”

Dougall described the controversy as “a major learning experience.” He said it was hard to face anti-transparency accusations, and that he and other lawmakers had relied on insufficient information without adequate public comment.

Now that he’s state auditor, implementing law rather than writing it, he says he tries to focus on being as transparent as possible.

“In my office, we don’t just fill a GRAMA request," he said. "We post it online.”

Richardson’s term in the House coincided with HB477, and she voted for both its passage and its later repeal. Now an open-records advocate on the State Records Committee, she believes Dougall’s intentions were good.

“I’ve never known him, before or after, to be anti-transparency," she said. "I think he’s just the opposite; I think he’s always advocated for transparency.”

Next-door auditor

Dabakis said he’d like Utah Democrats to prioritize the state auditor’s race, pitching a top candidate as a check against Republican-dominated government.

But while Dougall is a Republican — like the governor, legislative majorities, attorney general and treasurer — Dabakis said he’s been aggressive at looking under rocks, citing a 2017 audit of the Utah League of Cities and Towns that recommended a criminal investigation.

“I don’t think a person needs a CPA to do that job," Dabakis said. "I think what they need is political cajones of steel, where they’re not worried about what’s going to happen in the next Republican convention.”

By that measure, Dabakis said, some members of state government get an “F,” while Dougall gets a “B minus.”

“He’s a fun guy; I like him,” Dabakis said. “He’s just the kind of guy you’d want to have as a next-door neighbor.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Utah Auditor John Dougall and his wife Sandy wait for their turn to join the procession at the State of Utah's Inaugural Ceremony in the Capitol rotunda, Wednesday, January 4, 2017.

Dougall said his approach is to focus on areas of government where the press and public aren’t able to go, either due to confidential records or information, like finances, that benefit from specialized knowledge.

And while many politicians — and Republicans in particular — are skeptical or even overtly dismissive of the news media, Dougall said the press plays a critical role, adding that “sometimes they do a better job than other times.”

“We try to work with the press,” he said, “because we recognize, to a big extent, the press is the one that then takes that [audit] and better informs the public about it.”

Richardson said Dougall’s work has increased the visibility of the state auditor, and she hopes he’ll seek re-election. But she anticipates he’d have support if he ran for Congress instead.

“Whenever he is done being auditor, I think that the next auditor will have big shoes to fill," she said, "and will have some really great momentum.”

During the 2018 election, voters reported being contacted by pollsters asking about their support for Dougall as a potential candidate for U.S. Senate. Dougall said he was not involved with those polls, but that he was encouraged to run and did consider a campaign to ensure that Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, would have a Republican opponent.

That consideration ended, Dougall said, when another Republican — former state Rep. Mike Kennedy — got in the race.

“When you’ve got to go out there and you’ve got an opponent and you’ve got to articulate your message and debate different issues and travel the state to make your case, I think it makes you a stronger candidate,” Dougall said.

Whether that philosophy might entice Dougall to enter another race, or where he sees himself after a third term as auditor, he won’t say.

And while his wife, Sandy, isn’t sure what’s next for “Frugal Dougall," she believes it will be something that fits his nickname.

“If I was going to guess, something to do with numbers and money,” she said. “If there’s a need he sees that needs to be fixed or worked on — I think it comes from being the oldest of 11 — he’ll take on that responsibility.”