BACK IN 2010, the last time the state auditor’s job was up for grabs, CommonWealth went out on the hustings to see what the candidates were talking about. It turned out they were spending a significant chunk of their time explaining what the auditor does because few voters seemed to know.

Flash forward to today, more than 11 years later, and it’s the candidates themselves who are debating the responsibilities of the office.

Sen. Diana DiZoglio of Methuen, one of two Democrats seeking to become auditor, has caused a bit of a stir by saying she intends to audit the Legislature if she gets elected. It’s an ideal issue for her since much of her political success on Beacon Hill, first as a representative in the House and then as a state senator, has come from taking on the Legislature and its leaders for their handling of sexual harassment incidents, nondisclosure agreements, staff pay, and transparency. 

What’s unclear is whether the auditor has the legal authority to audit the Legislature. 

Suzanne Bump, who is stepping down next year after serving 11 years as auditor, said she researched the issue when she first was elected. According to a statement issued by her office, the enabling statute of the auditor’s office grants her the authority to audit more than 200 executive branch agencies.

“The Legislature is not among that list; therefore, the Office of the State Auditor by law does not have the authority, express or implied, to audit the Legislature,” the statement said. “Moreover, the Legislature is not an agency or department but rather another branch of government and, thus, subject to protections under the separation of powers doctrine. Just as the Office of the State Auditor looks to its auditees for compliance with their statutes and regulations, the Office of State Auditor too is bound by the limitations of its enabling statute and must act within its prescribed authority.”

Bump’s predecessor Joe DeNucci, who occupied the office for the previous 24 years, appears to have agreed. According to Mary Connaughton, a Republican who ran against Bump in 2010, DeNucci filed legislation seeking the authority to audit the Legislature. The legislation never passed.

Anthony Amore, the Republican candidate for auditor, believes the office lacks the legal standing to audit the Legislature.  His campaign manager Mark Steffen released a statement saying Amore knows what public auditors can and cannot do.

“He believes that all candidates for elected office should make realistic promises they can keep,” Steffen said. “If elected, Anthony will put his decades of auditing and inspection toward efforts to reform the law, and if unsuccessful he will support and campaign for a ballot question to make the Legislature subject to the public records laws, open meeting laws, and audits by the state auditor.” 

Chris Dempsey, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for auditor, hasn’t taken a stance yet on whether the auditor has the authority to audit the Legislature. “The enabling legislation gives the auditor’s office broad authority to audit and to suggest changes to state government,” he said. “I have a track record of reforming state government and standing up to protect the public interest. I’m running for this job to do more of that work, including taking on reform of the State Police, making the auditor’s office a national leader on climate change by making it the first in the country to incorporate carbon accounting into our audits, and overseeing the proper expenditure of federal recovery funds.” 

DiZoglio takes issue with Bump’s interpretation of the law. “Nothing in the statute expressly exempts the Legislature from being subject to the powers of the auditor’s office and — let’s be clear — the Legislature has never been shy in the past about exempting themselves explicitly from oversight in other statutes, including the public records law,” the senator said in a statement. “In addition, when it comes to the argument about separation of powers, that hasn’t stopped the auditor’s office from investigating issues related to the judiciary. No branch of government, especially the Legislature, should be above the law and exempt from accountability. As auditor, if I see wrongdoing in the Legislature, I will investigate, which is the right thing to do. If those efforts are stonewalled by unwilling participants, we can have the discussion in court. It’s important for the next auditor to be willing to challenge the status quo and not just give in to powerful insiders.”

Right now, auditing the Legislature is an ideal campaign issue for DiZoglio. Whether it’s a real possibility or not, the idea of auditing the Legislature feeds her campaign narrative.