Geragosian and Ward named new state auditors

For the first time in nearly two decades, state government will start the year with a new team of fiscal and programmatic watchdogs with Tuesday’s naming of Democrat John C. Geragosian and Republican Robert M. Ward as the auditors of public accounts.

Geragosian’s appointment also opens another key position in the legislature: The New Britain lawmaker currently serves as co-chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. Sources said the post will go to veteran Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven.

The new auditors, who still must be confirmed by the full legislature, will replace the retiring Robert G. Jaekle and Kevin P. Johnston, who have served as the Republican and Democratic auditors, respectively, since 1993.

Though Ward’s endorsement as the new GOP auditor had leaked out earlier this month, Democrats had been relatively quiet over the past month, though Geragosian, an eight-term lawmaker, had been rumored to be the front-runner.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, announced the new auditors today in a joint statement also issued by the House and Senate Minority Leaders, Republicans Lawrence F. Cafero of Norwalk and John McKinney of Fairfield.

“The auditor’s position requires individuals of high integrity and a thorough understanding of financial matters,” Donovan said. “I can’t think of a person who better exhibits those characteristics than John Geragosian, who served the General Assembly with distinction for many years.”

“John has always been a fair-minded legislator and he will make an excellent state auditor,” Williams said. “I’d also like to thank outgoing state auditors Kevin Johnston and Robert Jaekle for their years of fair-minded and dedicated service.”

Geragosian said he hopes to place a strong emphasis on performing additional programmatic audits and on attacking a growing backlog of state employee whistleblower complaints.

The legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee reported in December 2009 that the whistleblower process is inefficient and unable to handle an annual caseload that more than doubled between 2002 and 2008.

The auditors’ office routinely processes between 80 and 90 cases each year of corrupt and illegal practices, mismanagement, and dangers to public safety, the report found. But nearly 200 cases were backlogged when the December 2009 report was issued, including 29 that were more than two years old.

“I think fiscal constraints have diminished the auditors’ ability to deal with these areas over time,” Geragosian said, adding that these priorities would mesh well with Gov.-elect Dan Malloy’s stated desire to enhance government transparency.

The auditors currently oversee an annual budget of $13.4 million and a staff of 117 employees.

Cafero called Ward “the consummate public servant who over the years gained the trust and confidence on both sides of the aisle. Bob has always commanded the utmost respect from his colleagues. He will prove to be a great choice for this critical position.”

“Bob’s record of public service and reputation for fairness and hard work are beyond reproach,” McKinney added. “He will be an effective watchdog for Connecticut’s taxpayers, helping to assure sound fiscal management of all state agencies and assets at this critical time when we all must work to reduce the size and cost of state government to close our budget deficits.”

The longest-serving Republican House leader in Connecticut history, Ward retired from the legislature after 22 years in 2006 and was named commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles by Gov. M. Jodi Rell in January 2007.

“I’m honored by this and I take it very seriously,” Ward said Tuesday, adding that in tough fiscal times “it is increasingly important that the auditors look for issues of waste, fraud and inappropriate spending.”

The auditors’ posts are two of Connecticut’s oldest, dating back over 200 years. A relatively small office within the legislative branch, the auditors review the books and accounts for state agencies, boards, commissions, state-supported institutions and quasi-public entities created by the legislature.

The General Assembly passed an amendment in 1895 requiring that the auditors be from separate political parties. Their compensation is set by the legislature. Jaekle and Johnston earned $219,978 and $216,648, respectively, last year.

But other than the bipartisan rule regarding the two auditors, the statutes are relatively silent on any minimum qualifications the auditors must possess.

Connecticut’s auditors have come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

According to legislative researchers, Robert Claffey, who served from 1959 to 1965, owned a store. Raymond Thatcher, who served from 1956 to 1958, was a pharmacist, while Leo Donohue, auditor from 1967 to 1992, was a career state employee.

Though Jaekle and Johnston both were state legislators, Jaekle also is an attorney and Johnston was a banker.

Geragosian has been a Realtor in New Britain for the past 26 years. Ward is an attorney.