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Is Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, GOP candidate for attorney general, planning an October “audit surprise” for Democrats in Cuyahoga County? editorial

September 28, 2018

Is Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, GOP candidate for attorney general, planning an October “audit surprise” for Democrats in Cuyahoga County? editorial

Unsurprisingly, partisan jockeying for electoral advantage is on the rise in Ohio given the importance for both Republicans and Democrats of the Nov. 6 midterm elections. That’s why appearances and timing also matter for partisan officeholders whose actions could bear on the outcome of the elections.

So a recent civil subpoena served on Cuyahoga County by the office of Ohio Auditor David Yost -- the Republican candidate for state attorney general -- that seeks emails from County Executive Armond Budish, a Democrat running for re-election Nov. 6, should raise eyebrows. The timing and goals of this subpoena require a fuller explanation from Yost.

The auditor’s subpoena, revealed via an open records request by cleveland.com reporter Courtney Astolfi, seeks emails sent or received by Budish relating to overtime and bonuses paid to a county employee. The payments are the apparent target of a Yost audit that’s been ongoing for a while.

County officials say all emails relative to the issue were already turned over to Cuyahoga County prosecutors  -- and they are understandably nonplussed by this indication that Yost may be preparing to release the audit soon in what could constitute a pre-election “audit surprise” for Cuyahoga County voters. Unlike Missouri, which prohibits issuance of audits within 30 days of an election, Ohio does not bar release of such audits in a way that could influence the outcome of an election.

Yost, of Columbus, faces Greater Cleveland’s Steven Dettelbach, a Democrat and former U.S. attorney for Northern Ohio, on the Nov. 6 ballot. The release of an audit close to that election that is critical of Democratic county officeholders in the state’s most heavily populated Democratic county could -- in theory -- depress turnout, hurting Dettelbach in his home county and benefiting Yost in the attorney general’s race.

Astolfi reported that Yost’s subpoena requests emails that Budish sent or received from January 2017 through mid-July 2017 relating to compensation and benefits for James Hay, Cuyahoga County’s deputy chief information officer.

Budish, in a statement, said he believes Yost’s office is trying to determine whether Budish personally authorized a $15,000 bonus for Hay. “We informed the auditor’s staff that I was not involved,” Budish said in his statement.

The county’s Internal Auditing Department and the county prosecutor’s office had previously determined that Budish’s administration improperly awarded some bonuses and perquisites.

The auditor’s civil subpoena is unrelated to a criminal investigation of Cuyahoga County’s Information Technology Department, Astolfi reported. 

Audits like this typically take months, when auditors work with those being audited to compile the most accurate picture possible of the books. During this process, the auditors regularly ask for and receive documents from the agency or entity being audited.

Yost’s office told Astolfi it has used subpoenas regularly but was unable to provide prior examples. That serves to compound suspicions that politics could be at play in the timing of the subpoena in this audit.    

A Yost spokesman said only that the auditor’s office takes “steps that are necessary to complete an audit. Sometimes that includes issuing subpoenas.”

The route being taken by Yost’s office isn’t necessarily out of line. But to many Ohioans, whatever distinctions there may be between “request” and “subpoena,” the word “subpoena” likely suggests courtrooms, not green eyeshades and ledgers.

Early voting begins on Oct. 10. Ohio law doesn’t restrict the election-related timing of the release of audits. But in Missouri, for example, it’s the policy of that state’s auditor “to not release [audit] findings in a time frame that may alter the results of an election,” as the Daily Journal of Missouri put it recently.

Ohio needs to do the same -- not because Yost necessarily is in the wrong in this case -- but because appearances can bolster, or undermine, public confidence in government processes. And until such policies are in place, Yost should refrain from issuing the results of his Cuyahoga County audit so close to the Nov. 6 elections that it could be interpreted as an October surprise designed to influence the outcome of that polling. 

About our editorials: Editorials express the view of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer -- the senior leadership and editorial-writing staff. As is traditional, editorials are unsigned and intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization.  

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