Marion Higa, whose second eight-year term as state auditor began in 2000, maintains a neat office on the 5th floor of the old Territorial Building, displaying artwork by Reuben Tam and Satoru Abe along with dozens of plaques and awards, silver vases, crystal boxes and koa bowls. On a low table across from her desk is a boom box with CDs, primarily classical music by Beethoven, Strauss and Verdi, which she says she often forgets to play.

In Higa we trust

Hawaii's straight-forward state
auditor may be the most trusted --
and feared -- woman in the islands

By Cynthia Oi

If clothing is any indication of a person's character, you need only look at Marion Higa's attire. Most of the tailored suits the state auditor wears are of her own making because, she says, "I'm particular about fit."

If reaction is any indication of the might of her office, you need only observe the behavior of state officials when asked to comment about her work. One agency nervously lined up seven employees and a 35-page, tabulated information packet in response.

Higa is arguably the most trusted figure in state government. Even officials who have endured her scrutiny acknowledge the value of her audits, albeit somewhat grudgingly.

She enjoys a sterling reputation among other state auditors, who envy her authority -- one of eight in the nation established by constitution -- her broad powers to examine performance and financial matters of all executive agencies and to question officials under oath, as well as the position's unlimited eight-year terms, subject to removal only by two-thirds vote of a joint session of the Legislature.

Kansas auditor Barb Hinton, who has known Higa for more than 10 years, commends her Hawaii counterpart for her professionalism and "absolute grace."

"Marion's held in high regard pretty much all through the country," Hinton says. "Her work is accurate, reliable, unbiased."


Kinney Poynter, deputy director of the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers, notes Higa's reputation for being objective and fair, "the fundamental traits of a good auditor."

Higa also wins praise for her staff, an assemblage of about 26 with degrees in law, political science, public administration, human resources, accounting, planning, business and journalism. "All good people," Hinton says. "She runs a professional operation." With a budget of $2.2 million, they conduct more than a dozen audits annually.

But she is not without critics. There's Bruce Anderson, director of the Department of Health, for one. Anderson's agency has been involved in about five audits in the last three years. Among the most volatile have been those concerning contracts for services provided for special-education children covered by the Felix consent decree. A 2001 audit faulted the department for questionable financial management in awarding contracts to service providers.

While noting that the audits have been "helpful," Anderson takes issue with Higa's reports, saying that "they are often dated by the time they're published."

"Even if they know that the problem has been corrected, they don't include that in the report. That seems to be their modus operandi and that does a disservice to the agencies," he contends.

State Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, a leader of a joint legislative committee formed to examine special-education spending, disputes that. "That time criticism isn't valid," she says. "That's just Bruce. What we've come to learn (through Higa's audits) is that the Department of Health is not on top of things."

Marion Higa says her favorite of recent audits was one on the Department of Education's storeroom, which she suggested be eliminated because it was not able to get teachers the supplies they needed quickly and easily. The DOE agreed and will dismantle the operation by the end of the year.

Hanabusa credits the auditor's office with having "major influences and changing major policy." She points to a 1999 report that the state employees health fund's failed to follow proper accounting and financial reporting standards, resulting in about $294 million of revenues and $203 million of expenses not being recorded and reported. This pushed lawmakers to revamp the health fund system the following year. "That was a specific function of her audit," Hanabusa says.

Another critic of audits is Mason Young, administrator of the boating division in the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. "I don't like them. Any program gets picked for an audit, there's never a happy ending," Young observes.

But Dede Mamiya, land administrator for DLNR, has had a different experience. An audit of her agency resulted a $2 million appropriation to set up a computer system to manage land leases more efficiently. "We have totally overhauled our operations and that audit was the start of it," she says. "It's much more persuasive to the legislators if you wave an audit in front of them and say, 'Look, this is why we need these funds.'"

Roy Tokujo, chairman of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, views the audit of his agency as a management tool, but he'd prefer the effort be more collaborative than confrontational. "A lot of what government does is process without looking at the results," he says, "and I come from a business background where we're results-oriented. We need to be pointed to how the process can be used to effect the results we want."

Higa believes that is what the audits do with its recommendations. However, recommendations are where she has to draw the line. Her office has no legal authority to force an agency to adopt an audit's proposals.

"As an oversight agency, you don't want the enforcement power because that taints you when you go back to audit again."

If the auditor's office participates in implementing recommendations, "we're, in effect, auditing ourselves. You need that wall. Once you start serving as a consultant, you're going to run into an Arthur Anderson kind of problem."

"We lay out how (an agency) might make changes, but beyond that, I don't send my staff back in to help."

If a department ignores her recommendations, her recourse is to conduct another audit. If still ignored, she takes the recommendations to a higher level, even so far as to suggest that the governor get involved. "We ratchet up the recommendations."

Higa expects that her audits will meet resistance.

"There will always be some, but I see less of a quick reaction to dismiss our findings, partly because they know we're going to report what they did in subsequent years, partly because there's more attention being paid to our audits."

Getting the attention is much her doing. Since 1992, when she was appointed to her first term, Higa has raised her office's profile. She's made sure her reports are put out to the public and the Legislature more quickly and more simply, issuing succinct overviews that are easily understood. Reports are posted on a Web site; she makes herself available to explain findings, testifying before legislative hearings and putting a face to the audits.

"It shows we stand behind our work," she says.

An important element of her operation is to draft legislation. "If we see that the cause of a problem is a flaw or a weak statute, we have a bill drafted by the Legislative Reference Bureau. I let the legislators know that there is a bill banked there and they can introduce it if they want."

Asked if the state is being run efficiently, Higa laughs. "Probably not," she answers quickly, "not as efficiently as it could be.

"There's always a human resistance to change. There will always seem to be winners and losers in change, and there are. There will be winners in power, money under their control. Beyond that, people will fear for their jobs because usually when you say efficiency you're talking about needing fewer people to do the same task."

Some state workers, however, feel very secure in their jobs, Higa says. "A couple of years ago, we did an audit of the highways division and reported on the bridge-design section staff who were reading novels, playing computer games and sleeping, even as my staff was there. It didn't seem to matter to them. It seemed to illustrate ... an arrogance."

"DOT (Department of Transportation) has a particular problem in that its guaranteed sources of funds engenders an attitude (in employees) that the Legislature is less important to their fate. They're not dependent on the appropriations process because their special funds come no matter what they do."

On the other hand, there have been workers who have welcomed an audit. "We've had staff call us and ask use to please not leave their audit off the list because they really think they should be audited."

If there is no change, she says, everyone loses. "There are some honest people in every organization. It gives the honest people hope when there is change. But when you have leadership that doesn't acknowledge there's a problem, even the honest people are going to get discouraged."

Her criticism of leadership does not extend to Pat Hama-moto, the superintendent of schools.

"There's been a shift at the DOE. Maybe it comes from her having been at the schools and knowing how tough it can be at the school level. She acknowledges there are things that need to be changed and she seems to have her fingers on how to make them happen."

Hamamoto understands the value of Higa's audits. "She isn't making a judgment. What I consider her audit reports to be is 'This is what we found.' Then as the agency that was audited, we look at the data, analyze it and use it to improve. If it doesn't represent an accurate interpretation, then we have to ensure that what we convey the next time is."

If she's not sure about a recommendation, Hamamoto says she feels she can pick up the phone and ask questions of Higa. "She's been very good about working within her authority and responsibilities. That's why I don't consider her audits to be threatening or adversarial."

Hamamoto and Higa share the same high school, Hama-moto as long-time principal and Higa as a graduate, who is in the McKinley High Hall of Honor. The 60-year-old auditor grew up in McCully, the eldest of three children of a school teacher and a seamstress. She attended the University of Hawaii and the University of Illinois and holds degrees in education.

After years on the mainland and in Germany, where her late husband was stationed, they returned to Hawaii when he received his law degree.

Although she had taught school, she wanted to an experience outside of the classroom, and applied for a job at the auditor's office as well as with DOE. Both offered her jobs. "I thought I'd like to do some analytical-research stuff for a couple of years, then go back to teaching. I never left."

A widow, she has a son and recently married daughter. She likes gardening and, of course, sewing in her spare time, which during legislative sessions is a scarce commodity.

She is devoted to her work, says her deputy Leslie Tanaka, whose started at the auditor's office in 1971, the same year Higa did. Although he left for 13 years to work in the university system, Higa brought him back eight years ago.

Tanaka, who returned a phone call in the middle of his vacation, says he and Higa share an attitude about their duties. "She's a consummate public servant. We look at it as a 24/7 job. That's the expectation of the public and we make sure we fulfill that. It's a passion -- to do this kind of work and do it well."

Higa "demands a lot and that's good. People are given the latitude on a professional basis to do good work," he says. She is encouraging and makes sure her employees have the opportunity for more training and to develop their skills.

Although the office and Higa sometimes take a lot of criticism, they don't back down, Tanaka said. "We're not supposed to gloss over things. If we think something is out of kilter or amiss, we're not afraid to call it as it is. That's the hallmark of Marion's administration. If she thinks we're right, we fight all the way to the end."

Asked if she the most feared woman in Hawaii, he laughs. "She's a warm, caring person. She bakes like Martha Stewart."

Asked the same question, Higa sums her approach to both life and worklife. "Do your job; you won't have to be afraid.

"I'm a stickler."

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