Wagner May Appeal Ruling Nixing Her Bid To Investigate County Authorities

Nov 9, 2015

A judge ruled Friday that Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner lacked the authority to impose performance audits on its Port, Sanitation, Airport and Sports Exhibition authorities.
Credit Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

  County Controller Chelsa Wagner might appeal a decision Friday that prohibits her from auditing the performance of most county authorities.

Wagner may conduct performance audits of entities subject to county jurisdiction, including the jail and county police and health departments, but can’t assess its Airport Authority, Sanitary Authority, Port Authority and the city-county Sports Exhibition Authority, Common Pleas Judge Joseph M. James said Friday.

James ruled that the laws that established the county's other governing authorities give only the state's attorney general or auditor general the power to audit authorities.

Earlier this year, Wagner filed suit alleging greater access into county operations would further her ability to protect taxpayers and investigate complaints from would-be whistleblowers.

A performance audit differs from a fiscal audit, she said, in that a performance audit looks at a program’s effectiveness and efficiency.

“Without performance audits,” Wagner said, “you cannot root out fraud, you cannot shine lights on insider relationships and you cannot show where practices can in fact be improved.”

Wagner reiterated on Monday her long-standing concern for transparency among county departments and reminded attendees that it pre-dated this litigation. Wagner, who was re-elected in an uncontested race last week, said she's pleased to have made some leeway and called it “a big step forward for county taxpayers.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald vocally opposed Wagner through the primary campaign, both supporting her challenger, Democrat and former controller Mark Patrick Flaherty, and contesting her authority to perform the audits. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Reviewthe two agreed in May to adhere to the court's decision.

“This was the first time that the question of performance audits was raised under this new form of government," Allegheny County Manager William D. McKain said in a statement. "We’re glad to have the clarity on this issue. When the county executive and controller met after the primary, they agreed to abide by the decision of the court, and it is our intent to do exactly that.”

Wagner spokesman Lou Takacs said Monday, "Controller Wagner absolutely disputes that any agreement was made with the county executive not to appeal."

Wagner said her office will set up a citizen’s review advisory committee soon.