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West Virginia auditor race a rematch

FACING OFF — Republican State Auditor J.B. McCuskey and Democratic opponent Mary Ann Claytor will oppose each other in the November general election. (File photos)

CHARLESTON — In 2016, a Republican member of the House of Delegates defeated a former Democratic employee of the state auditor’s office in a race to succeed Glen Gainer.

In 2020, the same two opponents are facing each other again.

Auditor J.B. McCuskey was the Republican lawmaker who won that race in 2016 and is seeking his second term.

Mary Ann Claytor is the Democratic candidate, a former auditor for Gainer who calls herself a “real auditor.” It was a landslide victory for McCuskey, but Claytor still believes she’s the better choice.

CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS

From helping counties and cities develop better budgeting and accounting programs, investigating fraud that has resulted in multiple convictions, or developing an online portal for citizens to see how the state spends their tax dollars, McCuskey has had a busy first term.

The pandemic made the office even busier as it tracks spending by state, counties and cities on coronavirus-related expenditures.

Like many of the offices on the Board of Public Works, the role of the auditor is more complicated than the name would suggest. The office acts as an accounts-payable office, examining all claims and requests for payment by vendors and issues checks, for which the state treasurer provides funds. The office also is the state’s version of the Securities and Exchange Commission and licenses brokers and dealers.

The auditor also is the state’s bookkeeper, keeping track of all expenses and revenues. The office keeps track of all state-owned property. It receives property taxes collected by county sheriffs and public utility taxes.

But above all, the office performs financial and compliance audits of county and city governments.

McCuskey, the son of retired state Supreme Court Justice John F. McCuskey, is a former two-term member of the House of Delegates representing the 35th District in Kanawha County.

First taking office on Jan. 16, 2017, McCuskey succeeded Democrat Glen Gainer as auditor after Gainer declined to run for re-election. With no incumbent to run against, McCuskey defeated Claytor 58 percent to 35 percent. McCuskey proved to be a popular candidate, even getting 35,423 more votes in his race than the winner of the governor’s race, the then-Democrat Jim Justice.

McCuskey said there is still much work to do in the auditor’s office and projects he wants to see through, though he said this would be his second and final term in office.

“The reason that I’m running for a second term is that the work isn’t finished,” McCuskey said. “I’ve talked a lot about my stringent belief in term limits and I think they should apply to constitutional officers, so this will be my last term running for auditor as well.”

“The goal is to begin to reshape from the ground up the way that the government information systems work, so that it is as modern as possibly can be to ensure that the citizens of West Virginia are getting the best bang for their buck,” McCuskey said.

McCuskey said providing greater transparency on how state money is spent and helping governments better manage their tax dollars can help governments operate more efficiently and help find additional dollars for education, addiction treatment, and housing.

“Creating a government that is efficient and transparent and cost effective is our biggest goal, because we believe that showing the people how their money’s being spent and then spending it properly will free up much needed resources to do the things that the government needs to be doing better,” McCuskey said. “All of those things I think play into building a government that is going to be attractive to those who want to move here, but probably more importantly works better for the businesses that are already here.”

The auditor’s office maintains wvCheckbook.com, a website where the public can search state spending, revenue, expenses, state employee salaries and more. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the website has become invaluable at keeping track of how the state is spending the federal C.A.R.E.S. Act coronavirus relief funds.

“We have set up a portal that gives a very unique and I think wide-ranging look into how the money is being spent,” McCuskey said. “It gives every citizen the opportunity to see how much money is still there and to make sure that the money that has been spent has been spent properly.”

McCuskey has worked with county governments to create local versions of wvCheckbook with the goal of creating similar systems for county school boards. The auditor’s office kicked off Project Mountaineer last year, a new integrated accounting program that will help cities, towns and villages with budgeting and accounting. The City of Beckley in Raleigh County just deployed Project Mountaineer last week.

The $1.2 billion C.A.R.E.S. Act funding for state, county and local governments can be used for reimbursements for coronavirus expenses, but not for dealing with budget shortfalls caused by decreased tax revenue from earlier shutdowns of businesses and reduced tourism. McCuskey said his office is working with local governments to help them weather these storms through better budgeting and tracking expenses.

“Our great challenge is going to be how is this going to affect the budgets, and not just the state but probably more importantly how is it going to affect the county governments and the city governments in their revenue situation,” McCuskey said. “Our office is going to be working with them, especially as we get towards the end of the year, on how do you budget in these times.”

McCuskey is most proud of the Public Integrity and Fraud Unit created during his term. Just in the last week, the investigations by the unit resulted in $20,000 in restitution in a Ritchie County fraud case. Another case in Mineral County resulted in $44,000 in restitution to the state.

The auditor’s office released a report last year citing misuse of FEMA grants by the town of Richwood meant for helping it rebuild after the 2016 flood. Four current and former Richwood officials were charged with embezzling FEMA funds and misuse of state purchasing cards. Those cases are ongoing.

“A lot of people talk about fighting fraud and a lot of people talk about wanting to get rid of it,” McCuskey said. “I don’t often toot my own horn very frequently, but we have actually made it a priority and the results speak for themselves.”

McCuskey is quick to offer praise to the staff of the State Auditor’s Office, who have managed to keep the work of the office going even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I truly love my job, and I am very, very excited about the prospects of building on the progress that myself and our staff has made in the last three and a half years for four more years, to cement these ideals into the fabric of our government,” McCuskey said.

‘A REAL AUDITOR’

Mary Ann Claytor is not going to let her defeat by McCuskey in 2016 stop her from trying again to run the office where she previously worked.

Claytor was a 20-year veteran of the auditor’s office who worked with Gainer. She left the office in 2016 to care for one of her three children dealing with an undisclosed illness.

Claytor fashions herself as a “real auditor.” She has an accounting degree from West Virginia State University in Institute and most of her responsibilities in the auditor’s office were in financial and compliance audits of city and county governments.

“I’m running because I’m the most qualified person to lead the auditor’s office,” Claytor said. “I probably have more than the minimum qualifications, just like our attorney general is required to have a law degree. I just believe that it’ll be a different environment when we have someone that has been a real auditor.”

Claytor said one of the plans she would implement is remote training for counties and cities. More often than not, training either takes place at conferences where city and county officials have to travel or staff from the auditor’s office go to the cities and counties to offer training. Especially when COVID-19 is limiting contact between people, Claytor said remote training would be helpful.

“If I would have been in office in 2016, I would have been talking about remote training,” Claytor said. “I wanted everyone to have that equal opportunity for the training and kind of put that out for the local governments to access later and have them all recorded so that they would have been able to access the information.”

Claytor is one of several state and local candidates affiliated with WV Can’t Wait, a movement founded by former Democratic candidate for governor Stephen Smith. The group, pushing several liberal and progressive candidates, has a number of platforms, including in the areas of ending government waste and prosecuting corruption.

Planks of those platforms include producing state budget documents in greater detail, creating a state inspector general’s office to investigate waste and corruption, “secret shoppers” to observe misconduct in state agencies and report back, and strengthen laws against corruption in state government. Claytor said she supports the goals of WV Can’t Wait and hopes to work with lawmakers elected in 2020 to improve the State Auditor’s Office to assist in these goals.

“That really works when you have people that have a common goal and it’s the way we want to improve government,” Claytor said. “I just feel like we just have to hold people accountable.”

While Claytor also favors using technology to improve the functions of the office, at the end of the day she is still a hands-on number cruncher. It’s those skills she hopes to put to good use as the next state auditor.

“I’m the type of person that I don’t want us to decrease the quality,” Claytor said. And with my skills and background, I would be able to make sure that’s not getting done. It doesn’t leave you when you’ve done it for this long.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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