Adam Andrzejewski, Chairman of American Transparency and founder of the transparency website OpenTheBooks.com, has been battling for American Transparency (AT) to force California’s Chief Financial Officer and the State Controller of California, for an "any and all" line-by-line detail for state vendor payments. According to the California Open Records Act law, the information must already be available, but the state’s last two controllers, John Chiang and currently Betty Yee, keep telling American Transparency to stop asking because the records aren’t technically accessible.
AT argues that any financial officer cutting checks for $240 billion a year must have the ability to track all payments. The California Controller has all the authority to pay the bills, be the chief state account and bookkeeping, state payroll officer, and provides audits of all state operations – including financial and compliance audits and "attestations." By California law, the state controller is dutifully charged with tracking for "every dollar spent by the state."
The California State Controller website proudly states that their office makes:
"about 46 million payments annually, 24 million through warrants (state equivalent of checks) and 22 million via electronic fund transfers (EFT). Daily that’s about 183,000 payments, 97,000 warrants and 86,000 ETF. Payments include, among other things, state departments operating costs and payroll, personal income tax refunds, and retirement warrants."
But AT has gotten an entirely different on-the-record response from Rick Chivaro, Chief Counsel for State Controller’s Office. Chivaro claims:
"In California, there are approximately 500 CA state governmental agencies, departments and commissions each of which pay some or all of their vendors directly. The State Controller does not maintain a ‘check’ register dedicated solely to vendor payments made by every agency, board, and commission of the State of California."
But when AT pushed harder earlier this month, Chivaro now says the Controller doesn’t have access to any payment files: "Consequently, because of the way the claims are batched and processed by this office, we are unable to locate or otherwise provide you with the documents requested."
California is not AT’s first rodeo trying to get "public records" regarding spending from a state controller. Republican Comptroller Judy Baar-Topinka in 2012 tried to obfuscate AT’s Illinois Freedom of Information Act request for the state spending record by commenting sarcastically, "the state doesn’t have a ‘magical checkbook’."
AT responded "Guess what? The state doesn’t have magical revenues either." AT warned that hardworking taxpayers who shouldn’t have to obtain a search warrant to find out how their taxes are spent. AT sued and eventually Illinois capitulated and miraculously produced a line-by-line spending since 2005 that contained a half million vendors and about a half trillion dollars in payments.
Los Angeles gave AT similar excuses as the state regarding the list of its spending. The city tried to use the delaying tactic that it would take almost two years to produce the spending list. But once AT moved forward with the threat of litigation, the transparency sun came out in LA last week. Data company Socrata helped the City of Los Angeles open the books on city spending data in just two months.
Taxpayers for decades have heard the stale line that ‘government doesn’t have the capability’ or ‘it’s too expensive’ to produce consolidated spending data. But in every state in the U.S. it is settled law that taxpayers have the right to review all spending as public records.
American Transparency has created a publically accessible data "commons" at OpenTheBooks.com. Currently, 48 of the 50 states comply with posting online at least one year of their line-by-line state spending.
At the federal level, U.S. Senators Tom Coburn and Barack Obama opened the federal checkbook with the 2006 "Google Your Government Act." Today, all spending is available on "Google Your Data Base."
The California State Controllers John Chiang and Betty Yee haven’t been arguing that they are not required by law to be compliant. Instead, they are claiming that tech-stupid California does not have the ability to comply with spending transparency at state and local levels.
AT intends to be relentless in forcing the Controller to fully comply with the California Open Records Act. AT has warned that they litigated other states and won every time. AT hopes that California will avoid the costs and time of a lawsuit they cannot win.
California residents and taxpayers can already view 4.63 million federal, state, and local salary and pension records, but the California checkbook remains hidden. Visiting theOpenTheBooks.com, you’ll find that the top 14,647 "highly compensated" public employees cost taxpayers nearly $5 billion per year in payroll, benefits and pension.
AT says that transparency is the foundation of smart government because it can answer the key questions that drive public policy: 1) "How much does government really cost?" and 2) "Are there indications of waste, fraud or corruption?"
AT believes California drought is not just about water, it’s about transparency too!