QUESTION: A three-hour joint meeting of the Oversight Committees of the Michigan House of Representatives and Michigan Senate last week focused on a state Auditor General’s report finding that death numbers from COVID-19 in nursing homes were higher than the death numbers reported by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Dept. of Health & Human Services.
As MIRS newsletter reported, majority Republican legislators present contended that the Auditor General’s report gives life to the contention that the DHHS had purposely sandbagged the number of COVID-19 nursing home deaths in an attempt to make its past pandemic decisions not look as catastrophic.
Earlier this week, Michigan’s Office of Auditor General (OAG) –- the state’s constitutionally-designed oversight branch –- published numbers indicating:
* The DHHS did not include 2,386 deaths related to COVID-19 that occurred in a long-term care facility, equating to a 30% undercount.
* Of the missed deaths, 38.6% came from smaller long-term care centers with 12 residents or less and other facilities non-obligated to report COVID-19 deaths to the state’s health department.
* 61.4% of the missed deaths came from auditors reviewing data from the Michigan Disease Surveillance System (MDSS), which contradicted DHHS numbers by exhibiting self-reported data from facilities, (See “DHHS Calls Nursing Home COVID Death Report A ‘Disservice,'” 1/18/22).
When asked at the committee meeting about the report, Auditor General Doug A. Ringler confirmed that he believed his agency had collected a true count of the COVID-19 long-term care facility deaths. However, RINGLER also said the OAG knew the DHHS wasn’t tracking all of the death numbers being reflected in their labs, adding that the OAG felt the word “under-report” was unfair toward the department.
“We did an analysis in black and white. We have identified what it was we did. We identified the pluses of our work. We identified some of the warts that existed from trying to do data analytics…It’s there in black and white,” Ringler said near the end of the meeting. “We said what we mean. We mean what we said.”
But the Whitmer administration, realizing what was coming in the OAG report, had already struck back. Even before the OAG audit was released, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — a Whitmer ally — tried to pre-empt it by issuing a press release denouncing the OAG effort as a “partisan” hit job.
And, at the committee hearing, DHHS Director Elizabeth HERTEL vehemently defended her department’s accounting of COVID-19 deaths as one that followed federal and state rules. She insisted that her department’s death figures were not a duplication of what happened in the state of New York, where COVID-19 nursing home deaths could have been miscounted by up to 50%.
“(We’re) very different,” Hertel told the committee. “The suggestion that a facility or the department intentionally misrepresented or misconducted numbers, when the differences between the standards that we follow and the definitions that the (Office of the Auditor General) used in the report are clear . . . when the other limitations I’ve described today are clear, it’s deeply disappointing.”
Still, after the hearing, a press release from the Michigan Republican Party showed just how “political” (a misnomer, really — the adjective should be “partisan”) the whole question of COVID-related nursing home deaths has become. “Whitmer’s orders to place COVID positive patients in nursing homes essentially became a state-ordered death,” said Gustavo Portela, MIGOP Communications Director. “This administration under-reported 2,400 deaths in long term care facilities. What else could they be hiding? One thing is for sure — this Governor has blood on her hands and she must be investigated for incompetence and gross negligence for willingly putting some of the most vulnerable people in danger.”
And, a day earlier, three Republican state senators issued a defense of Ringler’s findings and took a few swipes at Team Whitmer. Senators Ed McBroom (R-Wauceda Twp); Lana Theis (R-Brighton); and Doug Wozniak (R-Shelby Township) issued statement saying, in part: “We already knew that more than one-third of all COVID-19-associated deaths in our state occurred among residents at long-term care facilities. Now, independent state auditors have concluded administration bureaucrats either miscalculated or misreported, if not misled, the public about the number of COVID-19 deaths at such facilities …
Continued the Senate troika: “It is shocking that the department (DHHS) has not pursued attaining a more accurate count of those early months, even after admitting it had not done a good job counting. Instead of owning up to the mistake, the administration attacked the Auditor General before the final report was issued in a poor attempt at preemptively discrediting the OAG, which has been nationally recognized for its work rooting out problems in health care settings. The OAG has a commendable record on health care related audits, including receiving two national awards for its work on the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. Politicizing crises is not uncharacteristic of this (Whitmer) administration and it seems they presume all others do the same. The Auditor General was elected unanimously by the Legislature and has an impeccable and undeniable reputation of conducting himself and his department in a professional, non-partisan, objective manner. To infer otherwise, especially while facing unpleasant and undesired data, simply demonstrates an unwillingness to accept accountability and a lack of character. The fact remains DHHS did not report 1,511 long-term care facility deaths from COVID-19 and the public deserves better.”
This isn’t the one and only time Ringler and the OAG have found themselves in the political spotlight. Last summer, Attorney General Dana Nessel opined that the Office of Auditor General has no legal authority to conduct post-election audits, including county clerk operations or local election results.
The opinion came at the request of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Nessel’s sister Democrat, following Ringler’s announcement of a post-election audit of the 2020 election. An Attorney General’s opinion has the force of law unless it is overturned by a court.
So, here are the questions: Who is Doug A. Ringler? How has he and the OAG wound up at the center of this raging controversy? What is the Auditor General, anyway? What power does he really have? Is he elected, or appointed, and, if so, by whom? In all of Michigan political history, has there ever before been a brouhaha involving the Auditor General?
Answers: Ringler is the 44th state Auditor General Michigan has had (Whitmer is the 49th governor). He was born in Reed City and holds a B.S. degree from Ferris State University. Ringler has been in Michigan government in some capacity or another for 26 years, including a stint as former Gov. Rick Snyder’s executive auditor. He has won an award for “Internal Auditor of the Year” from the Institute of Internal Auditors. His annual salary was $180,169 in 2020..
Believe it or not, the AG was elected statewide on a partisan ticket from the time Michigan became a state in 1837 until the current Constitution went into effect on January 1, 1964, when it was moved from the executive branch of government to the legislative branch. The AG is appointed by a majority vote of both the House and Senate. The first appointed AG was Albert Lee, who was chosen by the Legislature in 1965 when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate with heavy majorities. He served a total of 16 years, all under Republican governors (George Romney and William Milliken) without a whiff of controversy.
Ringler was elected unanimously by all members of the House and Senate in 2014 and has served under a Republican governor (Rick Snyder) and Whitmer, a Democrat. The OAG always has been viewed as the classic “green eyeshade” non-partisan government office, at least until now. An exception: Alpheus Felch, a pre-Civil War Democrat, went on to become governor in the 1840s and later a U.S. Senator. Another former AG, Otis Smith, was appointed to the state Supreme Court by Democratic Gov. John Swainson.
The Auditor General is appointed to serve an eight-year term, but s/he can be reappointed repeatedly (no term limits). In fact, the longest-serving AG was Thomas H. McTavish, who was first appointed in 1989 by a Legislature that was politically divided, and served a whopping 26 years. McTavish was AG under two Democrats, James Blanchard and Jennifer Granholm, and two Republicans, John Engler and Rick Snyder, who himself was a CPA. A close runner-up in longevity was Oramel B. Fuller, who served 24 years (1909-1932), and, remember, he had to be elected to 12 two-year terms (he was a Republican) to accomplish that. All governors Fuller served with were Republicans except for Woodbridge Ferris, a Democrat who was governor from 1913-16. Neither McTavish nor Fuller had a brush with controversy.
The current (1963) Constitution and other statutes provide the Auditor General with the authority to conduct post financial and performance audits of all branches, departments, offices, boards, authorities, and other institutions. The OAG fulfills these mandates by directly conducting or contracting for audits executed in accordance with professional accounting and auditing standards. The resulting reports are public documents. The OAG includes nearly 200 employees headquartered in the Victor Center in downtown Lansing, a stone’s throw from the capitol.
Here’s the list of Auditor General Historical Officeholders
There have been 44 Michigan Auditors General since 1836.
|List of officeholders from 1836-present|
|3||Eurotas P. Hastings||1840-1842|
|5||Henry L. Whipple||1842|
|6||Charles G. Hammond||1842-1845|
|7||John J. Adam||1845-1846|
|8||Digby V. Bell||1846-1848|
|9||John J. Adam||1848-1851|
|10||John Swegles, Jr||1851-1854|
|12||Daniel L. Case||1859-1860|
|13||Langford G. Berry||1861-1862|
|17||W. Irving Latimer||1879-1882|
|18||William C. Stevens||1883-1886|
|19||Henry H. Aplin||1887-1890|
|20||George W. Stone||1891-1892|
|21||Stanley W. Turner||1893-1896|
|22||Roscoe D. Dix||1897-1900|
|23||Perry F. Powers||1901-1904|
|24||James B. Bradley||1905-1908|
|25||Oramel B. Fuller||1909-1932|
|26||John K. Stack, Jr||1933-1935|
|27||John J. O’Hara||1935-1936|
|28||George T. Gundry||1937-1938|
|29||Vernon J. Brown||1939-1944|
|30||John D. Morrison, CPA||1945-1946|
|31||Murl K. Aten||1947-1950|
|32||John B. Martin, Jr||1951-1954|
|34||Frank S. Szymanski||1956-1959|
|35||William R. Hart (acting)||1959|
|36||Otis M. Smith||1959-1961|
|37||William A. Burgett (acting)||1961|
|38||Billie S. Farnum||1961-1964|
|39||Allison Green (acting)||1965|
|40||Albert Lee, CPA||1965-1982|
|41||Franklin C. Pinkelman||1982-1989|
|42||Charles S. Jones (acting)||1989|
Why was the OAG converted by the 1961-62 Michigan Constitutional Convention to the legislative branch of government from the executive branch, after 125 years and three Constitutions (1835, 1850 and 1908)?
Gil Wanger, a retired Lansing attorney who at age 28 was the youngest Republican delegate to the 1961-62 Con-Con, says that he came up with the idea after a conversation with the auditor for the City of Detroit, who had a sterling reputation among municipal auditors nationally. The Motown auditor told Wanger that he thought the AG logically should be housed in the legislative branch because its purpose was to examine whether laws passed by the Legislature were being properly carried out by the agencies of the executive branch. The AG itself should therefore not be part of the same executive branch it was auditing, which could result in cronyism. It should also not be elected on a partisan basis, but, rather, be appointed by the Legislature and bear credentials as a certified public accountant.
Wanger, now age 88 and one of less than a half-dozen surviving Con-Con delegates, says that there were a couple of other reasons why delegates looked favorably on the idea of moving the office to the legislative branch: First, growing dissatisfaction with the executive branch of state government as a result of the “Payless Paydays” crisis of 1959 and fractious relations with the other two branches of government, plus the profusion of independent agencies within the executive branch over which no governor had much control. Other steps were taken by delegates that enhanced Michigan governors’ powers, including giving them four-year terms and consolidating all of state government into no more than 20 departments. With that added authority, there was all the more reason for an independent auditor to ride herd on executive branch agencies and bureaucrats.
Secondly, there was the belief among majority Republicans at Con-Con that Michigan’s ballot was too long, with eight statewide elected offices. So the delegates jettisoned from the ballot not just the Auditor General but also the state Highway Commissioner, the state Treasurer, and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. All became appointed positions in the new 1963 Constitution.
Have there been controversies involving the OAG in the past? Yes, but of a minor variety, which rarely reached any significant level of scrutiny by the news media. Sometimes it involved whether the Civil Service Commission, say, or the Dept. of Corrections should be compelled to turn over certain records and data to the OAG for inspection. Nearly always, the OAG prevailed, or things were worked out. Indeed, the DHHS initially refused to turn over certain records to Ringler’s shop without a court order in 2018. It remains to be seen how the current disagreement, or misinterpretation of audit results (each department also has its own internal auditors) by the Legislature will sort itself out.
How can a flap like the current one be avoided in the future? A former legislative leader says that will happen only if the Auditor General and his OAG make sure they have their green eyeshades on and keep in their lane, and politicians must avoid trying to weaponize the reports that auditors customarily produce.
In these polarized times when everything has become “politicized,” that may be a tall order.