Magazine article The CPA Journal

Restoring Trust in an Independent Watchdog

Magazine article The CPA Journal

Restoring Trust in an Independent Watchdog

Article excerpt

An Exclusive Interview with New York State Comptroller

Thomas P. DiNapoli

Thomas P. DiNapoli was sworn in as New York State Comptroller on February 7, 2007. As the state's chief fiscal officer, he is responsible for operating the state's retirement systems and overseeing the state's pension fund. The Office of the State Comptroller is also responsible for auditing all state agencies and local governments, as well as reviewing state and city budgets and contracts. Prior to becoming State Comptroller, DiNapoli, a Democrat from Nassau County, had represented the New York State Assembly's 16th District for 20 years. Before he began his career in the Assembly, DiNapoli worked as a manager in the telecommunications industry. He has also served as an adjunct professor at Long Island University-C.W. Post Campus and at Hofstra University.

DiNapoli was selected by the state legislature for the Comptroller's post after his predecessor, Alan G. Hevesi, resigned after pleading guilty to using state employees for personal functions. In this exclusive interview, conducted on May 27, 2008, DiNapoli discussed how the circumstances of his appointment have shaped his agenda of emphasizing ethics and transparency. He describes the reforms the Office of the State Comptroller has implemented and the initiatives it has recommended to the legislature and the governor. He also discussed the challenges of ensuring fiscal responsibility in local agencies and governments, as well as current and proposed programs to improve accountability in the wake of recent scandals.

The CPA Journal: For those who may be unfamiliar with the responsibilities of the Office of the State Comptroller, please give us an overview of your responsibilities and the office's purview.

Thomas P. DiNapoli: The Office of the State Comptroller conducts a wide range of activities. Most people are not familiar with what we do, because we do so much. Although much of our work falls below the radar in terms of public awareness, we have a significant impact on many aspects of state operations. In other states, the work that we do is divided up into two or three different offices; there may be a state auditor, a state treasurer, and a state comptroller. These are often appointed positions rather than elected ones.

Since about the 1840s, the tradition in New York has been to elect a comptroller, and over the years, increasing responsibilities have been assigned to the office. I am the state's chief fiscal officer, which includes commenting on state fiscal practices from a long-term perspective with the goal of achieving a stronger financial position. My office comments on the governor's proposed and actual budgets on an ongoing basis. We address borrowing and spending practices, and handle the state's payroll.

The Office of the State Comptroller approves all state contracts. That accounts for approximately 40,000 contracts per year-everything from vendors doing business with the state to not-for-profits that receive state grants. We are in charge of signing off on the paperwork and cutting the checks. If we don't process the contractual paperwork in a timely fashion, vendor payments or not-for-profit funds may be held up. Therefore, we have to put a high priority on these business operations.

We manage the state's retirement system-whose members include all state employees and local government employees outside of New York City. There is a lot of information to be processed with about a million active employees, beneficiaries, and retirees. For example, we handle preretirement information for those considering retiring, beneficiary changes, and problems with benefit checks.

Then there's the other side of retirement, the pension fund [New York State Common Retirement Fund]. The Office of the State Comptroller not only pays out benefits, but also invests employee and employer contributions. At $155 billion, the state's pension fund is the third largest in the country and one of the largest in the world. …

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