By Eric Heinz
Two candidates vying to be Denver’s next auditor are taking aim at the office by touting their varied experiences.
Current Auditor Tim O’Brien, a certified public accountant, was elected to the office in 2015 and re-elected in 2019. He would be term-limited if he is elected once again.
During his tenure, he highlighted his more than 40 years in public auditing, having been the state auditor for 11 years.
“There is no other candidate, and there hasn’t been a candidate for a long time that brings that experience to the table,” O’Brien said. “I think I brought this office to a whole new level, both on the audit side of what we do and on the labor wage law enforcement that we do.”
Over his career, O’Brien said he has completed more than 1,000 audits, which included issues of mental health services in jails, affordable housing, homeless services, citywide equity and short-term rentals. One of the major audits O’Brien said his office is looking into is the over-budget Great Hall project at Denver International Airport, and his office intends to release a report sometime in April on it.
He said cyber security audits have also become increasingly important in the last six years, and his office has looked into how Denver can successfully implement its new weekly recycling pickup programs, which recently found the city has a lack of drivers and an aging truck fleet.
“I would say there are some departments that really welcome the auditor; technology services is a great example,” O’Brien said. “There are some departments that just don’t like the audits, I know there are, but I really think that the leadership knows that we kind of get to a better place with this kind of feedback. I can point out that there needs to be some refinement of policies, and that gets us to a better place. So I think we’ve got a good relationship with most of the departments.”
Another key achievement O’Brien said was his office’s ability to adequately address wage theft as well as prevailing and minimum wage compliance. The City Council signed an ordinance in January that addresses those problems. He said with minimum wages rising, the number of people the office covers has doubled from 60,000 to more than 120,000.
“That’s been a significant lift on our part, but I think the results of what we’ve done in prevailing wage and minimum wage, we’ve returned millions of dollars to people that earned it under the law, and no other auditor can say that,” O’Brien said.
Eric Clarke, who is challenging O’Brien, is a manager in commercial financial advisory and risk practice with Deloitte, and served on the 2020 U.S. Presidential Transition Committee and the boards of Mile High United Way and the Denver Health Foundation.
Clarke said the over-budgeted Great Hall project at Denver International Airport was one of the things that made him want to run, as he said he’s overseen multi-billion-dollar projects in his profession.
“Typically, those construction audits are at the contracting phase, so before you even break ground, you have oversight, but they waited four years,” Clarke said.
As auditor, Clarke said he would create a division of an ombudsman, someone who could do quicker reviews and “spot checking” audits that he said could produce faster results.
“If something goes wrong in the city, we could be able to get in there very quickly, and whether there’s a full audit in addition to a spot review, we would have very quick answers for management and the public on what went wrong,” Clarke said.
O’Brien filed a lawsuit against the City Council in March 2022 over an amendment it made that repealed the office of the auditor’s subpoena power, which he described as a way to “efficiently access information when auditing external parties related to city projects.”
At the time, O’Brien was quoted in a press release from his office calling the council’s move “a mistake,” but Clarke said the lawsuit was unnecessary.
“I believe there’s been a lapse in judgment, and the auditor being asleep at the wheel, suing City Council over a disagreement that very easily could have been solved just through negotiating in good faith,” Clarke said. “I think it was a failure of leadership.”
Clarke also said he thinks the current auditor’s office is lacking in long-term strategies.
“I just frankly have a different viewpoint about what an internal audit should be,” Clarke said. “In my view, as an auditor in the private sector, (an audit) should be focused on results. I think he’s taking the office as more of just focused on legal compliance and finances, which are also important aspects as well, but I think that performance piece is really key.”
Clarke said although the city has spent millions of dollars on addressing homelessness, he said Denver residents aren’t seeing the results of that funding as thousands continue to live on the street on a nightly basis.
“What’s the bang for buck? What program is effective? What’s not effective and how could it be effective? I think that’s where audits play a key role, and that’s not what we’ve been getting.”