Don't blame Higa
for possible breach
of privacy rules


The Lingle administration and the state auditor's office are arguing about an alleged breach of a federal privacy rule.

IF FEDERAL officials decide to hold the state liable for possible violations of a welfare confidentiality regulation, the penalties will be exacted most heavily on those who rely on food stamps and other aid to get by. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, the Lingle administration and the state auditor's office should be working together to straighten out the problem.

Protecting the information ultimately was the responsibility of the administration, despite its attempt to blame the auditor. Officials of the Department of Human Services were well aware of the law and should have made sure they redacted records properly before turning them over to the auditor.

The dispute arose from an audit of the state's electronic benefit-transfer program, which includes food stamps, child care and financial assistance. In conducting its investigation, the auditor's office sought data that the human services agency knew it was required to keep confidential. Most of the files the department provided had names and other restricted information deleted, but uncleared material somehow found its way to the auditor.

Department director Lillian Koller told auditor Marion Higa that a state attorney general's investigation found that the auditor's office violated federal regulations when it "unquestionably obtained" restricted information. However, that determination does not mean Higa's staff broke the rules; it means that the human-services department, as guardian, failed in its duty.

A similar problem came up two years ago when Higa and a legislative panel looking into special education services sought records, but Health and Education department officials said a federal privacy-rights law would not allow release of the information. Lawmakers this year passed a bill that would have authorized access to the auditor as a representative of the departments, but Governor Lingle, citing concern about possible lawsuits, vetoed the measure. It's hard to imagine that the state auditor's office would violate the privacy of citizens any more than department employees who have access to information.

Koller, who became head of the department in January, says she inherited the records dispute. She also inherited continuing problems with the agency that Higa's office described in the audit issued this week, including lack of proper controls in the systems administering electronic welfare payments and food stamps. As a result, the state lost about $4.5 million between 1999 and 2001 from the federal government, the auditor said. In fairness, these problems developed before Koller took the job, as evidenced by previous critical audits in 1994 and 1998. However, Koller should realize that as current director she can only deflect criticism for so long.

Administration officials say that as a result of the auditor's breach of confidentiality, Hawaii stands to lose some or all of the $8.8 million it receives annually from the federal government for welfare aid programs. But assigning blame is not a remedy, especially since the administration is the culpable party.

'Style' not a matter for dispute in auditor's reports

Before she was elected, Lingle had nothing but praise for Higa. Now that inspections are aimed at her administration, she complains that the auditor's reports are written in an "inflammatory style."

Audits are conducted to examine whether a program or an agency is being run efficiently and effectively and they can be expected to raise issues and questions. That's their purpose.

The governor doesn't deny the validity of Higa's reports. She acknowledges that the analysis of Child Protective Services correctly points to deficiencies that need fixing. She says the audits are valuable because objective eyes are doing the looking. But she doesn't like their tone.

Lingle should not blame the messenger. As long as the auditor's work is sound, Higa's "style" is of no consequence.

The governor's desire for the auditor to be involved in implementing recommendations is not a good idea. If that were to happen, how would the auditor maintain objectivity in future examinations? She would end up auditing herself. The value of an independent auditor is that she is beholden to no one except the people who pay her salary -- the taxpayers.



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