MN House panel grills state auditor over lawsuit

Republican lawmakers are turning up the heat on DFL state Auditor Rebecca Otto over the legal bills she’s racked up fighting a 2015 law that allows local officials to bypass her office and hire private sector audit firms.

Otto appeared before the House State Government Finance Committee Wednesday to provide an agency overview and discuss budget needs for the next two years. But lawmakers questioned her almost exclusively about the lawsuit, which is currently under appeal.

Otto answered most of the questions the same, defending her legal fight and offering few specifics.

“There’s some confusion around what the law means, and so we are in the courts,” Otto said. “It’s complicated right now.”

Otto, who recently announced a 2018 campaign for governor, told lawmakers that she paid for the lawsuit through “salary savings” and with transfers from other divisions within her office.

“It’s my job as the state auditor to manage within my budget to get the work done on behalf of the people, and that’s what I do,” she said.

Republicans grilled Otto without interruption for more than 90 minutes before any DFL members stepped in. Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, asked Otto to talk about the things going well in her office.

The committee then heard legislation that would prevent Otto from tapping designated accounts or reducing services to pay the legal fees, which now total more than $250,000.

Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said his bill would stop Otto from using additional taxpayer money on the litigation.

“It’s time to put an end to this,” Nash said. “If the auditor is truly able to scrimp and save and find ways to not spend new money or to look within her budget, I would encourage here to do so.”

The committee also discussed separate legislation that directs Otto’s office to reimburse the legal fees of the three counties that she sued: Becker, Ramsey and Wright.

Becker County Commissioner Barry Nelson said the costs so far for his county alone are nearly $42,000.

“Hopefully this ends real soon,” Nelson said. “It’s very hard for the counties of our size to continue on with this type of litigation.”

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