State Auditor Les Kondo is questioning the authority of a task force created by House Speaker Scott Saiki to obtain confidential personnel and other records from the auditor’s office.

In a letter dated Wednesday, Kondo also questioned the stated mission of the task force to undertake a “peer review” of the auditor’s operations, pointing out his office already undergoes a regular peer review.

The letter by Kondo underscores what has emerged as an extremely rare and public split between the powerful House speaker and the State Auditor, who was appointed by the House and Senate to serve an eight-year term.

State Auditor Les Kondo speaks about the first HART Audit.
State Auditor Les Kondo briefs reporters on a 2019 audit of the Honolulu rail project. House leaders have introduced a bill to slash funding for his office, and launched a task force to review the operations of the auditor’s office. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Saiki notified House members on Jan. 14 that he was launching what amounts to “an audit of the Auditor’s Office.” Saiki cited missed deadlines for some reports that lawmakers requested, and examples of  “unnecessary litigation” that involved the auditor.

Saiki also introduced a bill that would slash the auditor’s annual budget by more than 50%, a proposal Kondo said would “basically gut” the office. Saiki and Democratic House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti also introduced a measure to give lawmakers control over the auditor’s salary.

Taken together, those measures and Saiki’s task force leave little doubt Kondo is in the crosshairs of the Democratic House leadership, while Kondo has said he believes he has done a solid job in his five years in the position.

State law allows the Legislature to remove the auditor for cause with a two-thirds vote by the House and Senate, and Kondo has said that is the proper process for lawmakers to follow if they believe they have cause to replace him.

Kondo’s letter to Young amounts to pushback against Saiki’s task force, which is being led by former City Auditor Edwin Young. Saiki has said he will also appoint former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and former state Director of Finance Wes Machida to the task force.

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of protecting the Office of the Auditor’s independence and credibility, to avoid even the appearance that our work is being inappropriately influenced by others,” Kondo wrote to Young. “As you surely must agree, it is absolutely critical that the office be seen as unbiased and objective, free of political interference.”

Kondo asked Young to explain by what authority Saiki created the task force. He also questioned the scope of work that the task force is undertaking.

According to Kondo, Young explained in a Jan. 29 letter to Kondo that the task force or “working group” has been instructed “to provide a 360 degree assessment of the State Auditor Office operations.”

Kondo’s letter also states that Young requested confidential personnel files, contact information for former employees and audit working papers that are confidential under state law. Young also requested records on litigation, staff evaluations and information about staff turnover and “media battles.”

But Kondo said the task force mission outlined by Young and the records he requested “are not in line with my understanding of the Speaker’s intent for the Working Group.”

Saiki’s memo to House members said the task force was charged with ensuring the auditor’s office has complied with the requirements of the state Constitution, “which you likely have already confirmed,” Kondo wrote to Young.

Kondo also noted in his letter to Young that the state Constitution created safeguards to try to eliminate the possibility that the auditor could be removed for “political reasons.”

“Professionalism is an integral part of our job, and independence is part of that professionalism,” Kondo wrote. “Independence from undue political or other pressures is crucial, and without it, government auditors cannot properly do their job.”

A spokesman for Saiki said he was in meetings Thursday morning and not available to comment.

“The group will be working independently, so once appointed, the Chair will be the best person for comments,” said spokesman James Gonser in a text message.

Hanabusa did not respond to a request for comment Thursday morning, and Young was not available for comment.

Read Les Kondo’s letter:

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