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Archive for Monday, June 29, 1998

S $8 BILLION WORTH OF AGENCIES AND PROGRAMS.

June 29, 1998

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— Nobody in state government can escape the eyes and ears of Barb Hinton and her pack of auditors.

The longtime Lawrence resident is top dog for the Legislative Division of Post Audit, known as the ``Legislative Watchdogs'' because of the group's broad mandate to review the work and spending of $8 billion worth of agencies and programs connected to state government.

Rep. Ed McKechnie, who serves on the committee that oversees Hinton and her staff, knows the auditors have the skill and tenacity to sniff out evidence of mismanagement, bureaucratic inefficiency and financial wrongdoing.

``Nationally, it's a bad day if Mike Wallace shows up at your door with a crew from `60 Minutes,''' said McKechnie, D-Pittsburg. ``In Kansas, it's a bad day if Barb Hinton shows up with the Legislative Division of Post Audit. If you've done something wrong, they'll find it.''

Hinton takes pride in her work, and understands that nothing is out of bounds when it comes to measuring the effectiveness and efficiency of public work.

``Our job is to find out what's really going on, what does it all mean and write a report that makes people want to fix it,'' Hinton said.

Among the problems uncovered and confirmed by auditors in recent years:

  • Management problems and inconsistent enforcement within the state's division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
  • Bureaucratic woes at the Kansas University Medical Center, where a heart-transplant program had been temporarily closed after refusing donor hearts for patients.
  • Misuse of state resources, abuse of power, falsification of records, forgeries and ongoing mismanagement within the state's Board of Cosmetology, which tests and licenses cosmetologists, manicurists, electrologists and others in Kansas.

Not a bad record for a former administrative assistant at Lawrence city hall, who went back to college, earned a master's degree and joined the audit division 21 years ago as an editor.

Today, as legislative post auditor, she oversees 22 employees and a $1.5 million budget from the 12th floor office of Topeka's Mercantile Bank tower. From her office looking out onto the state capitol, Hinton's eyes and ears are still open, searching for information.

``We don't just look at numbers,'' she said. ``There are real people we are looking at.''

During the audit of KU's heart transplant program, for example, Hinton talked to a patient for nearly two hours about his struggles. The man lacked a new heart, had fluids oozing from his feet and lacked trust in the medical system -- all while doctors and administrators bickered internally about

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who should be responsible for staffing shortages and personnel resignations.

Hinton soon understood that nobody had bothered to focus on the program's mission: Restoring lives by transplanting hearts.

``All it takes is talking to a few people like that to know that your work matters,'' Hinton said.

All of the division's audits are ordered by a committee of legislators, who make requests after hearing from concerned constituents or even state agencies themselves.

During an audit, Hinton and her staffers spend months poring over records, thumbing through files and interviewing clients, administrators and others holding pertinent information.

Just like she did as a child, growing up in Topeka.

``My mom used to call me Nosy Josey, because I used to get into things and find out what's going on,'' Hinton said, laughing.

And she seldom takes no for an answer. Soon after taking over the division's top job in 1991, Hinton faced off with officials from four different agencies seeking to stifle her access to records during audits.

Hinton soon collected four attorney general's opinions confirming her arguments, and before long had all the information she needed.

``We really haven't had any problems since,'' she said.

Hinton -- who describes her strengths as having an analytical mind, an ability to write clearly and a sense for investigations and analysis -- doesn't spend her entire day worrying about rules, regulations and the letter of the law. She is married to local artist Ron Hinton, a metalsmith and sculptor whose creativity has taken shape throughout their 27 years of married life.

They enjoy living in Lawrence, enjoying the culture that offers a welcome respite from the responsibilities down the road in the state capital.

``It's a fun mix,'' she said.

-- Mark Fagan's phone message number is 832-7188. His e-mail address is mfagan@ljworld.com.

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