McCuskey takes account of time in office

CHARLESTON — John B. McCuskey — better known as J.B. — has spent the better part of three years as state auditor as a preacher for greater government transparency.

At county commissions, city councils and school board meetings, McCuskey is a constant traveler of the state helping governments improve how taxpayer dollars are spent.

At the West Virginia Municipal League’s 50th Annual Conference on Thursday, McCuskey unveiled Project Mountaineer to mayors, council members and officials. The project, which already has 30 participating municipalities, is a new integrated accounting program that will help cities, towns and villages with budgeting and accounting.

“This is absolutely a win-win, and the Municipal League has been a phenomenal partner with us on this,” McCuskey said. “It’s so refreshing … to see a group of public servants who are willing to embrace modern technology, to embrace change, to see progress and to actually have fun doing it.”

For the auditor’s office, Project Mountaineer will help with annual audits, saving the state money and helping auditors see red flags quicker.

“This is a first of its kind in the nation integrated accounting platform between municipal and state government,” McCuskey said. “It gives (municipalities) the ability to have a first of its first-class accounting system that they otherwise couldn’t afford. It’s going to streamline audits. It’s going to make our audits less expensive. More than that, we’re going to be able to start real-time monitoring our cities’ financial successes and failures.”

It is projects such as this that give McCuskey added energy to take on one of the largest agencies in the state.

“At the end of the day, the real winners here are the taxpayers and the cities because they get transparency,” McCuskey said. “This is something that we’re really proud of.”

WATCHDOGS

When the public thinks about the auditor’s office, “audit” sticks out like a sore thumb. But the office, among the largest offices in the Board of Public Works, does far more than that.

“I had a very healthy respect for (the office) going in,” McCuskey said. “But having served in this role for almost three years now, I have a much greater appreciation for the role of this office.”

While the treasurer’s office is the state’s banker, the auditor’s office serves as the accounts-payable office, ensuring that bills are paid. The office also acts as the state version of the Securities and Exchange Commission, licensing brokers and dealers.

The auditor also manages the collecting and selling of delinquent tax property. All purchasing cards handled by state employees are monitored by the office. The state’s wvOASIS system, which manages payroll, personnel management, time reporting, benefits, and financial management, is a part of the auditor’s office.

But the office is best known for auditing. McCuskey’s office audits all municipalities, county governments, school boards, public service commissions and volunteer fire departments, nearly 700 audits annually.

During his tenure, the office has also created a Public Integrity and Fraud Unit. McCuskey said the office has opened 53 felony fraud cases over the last two years, with at least five cases that resulted in felony charges and convictions.

Most notably, the auditor’s office released a report in March 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.

TAKING THE MAGNIFYING GLASS

McCuskey, a Republican, first took office Jan. 16, 2017. The son of retired state Supreme Court Justice John F. McCuskey, J.B. followed his dad into the legal profession. He spent two terms in the West Virginia House of Delegates before running for auditor.

Democrat Glen Gainer, the previous auditor, declined to run for re-election and retired to become president of the National White Collar Crime Center. With no incumbent to run against, McCuskey defeated Mary Ann 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.

But winning is the easy part. The hard part is governing.

“Coming from the private sector, I was an employee, not a boss,” McCuskey said. “I walked in on day one and I had a couple hundred people looking to me for leadership and for guidance. It is a pretty quick kick in the face when you understand that there are that many people looking to you to set the tone for how things are going to go.”

While some might have cleaned house, McCuskey knew he needed the expertise of the staff, no matter what their party affiliation might be. For example, Lisa Hopkins, the securities commissioner for the auditor’s office, served as interim state auditor after Gainer retired. McCuskey said Hopkins still serves as securities commissioner.

“I don’t know that anyone has ever done this before, but my predecessor was a person of a different party who stayed on after the transition,” McCuskey said. “I believe that we have done a really great job of promoting our staff, making sure they understand how valuable they are, and giving them the tools they need to be successful.”

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

McCuskey takes his job as a watchdog seriously. The auditor’s office has been in the headlines the last few years. Whether it’s finding out the state is making lease payments for property it doesn’t use anymore or discovering expenses by the state Supreme Court of Appeals at Victoria’s Secret, McCuskey and his staff have uncovered many instances of questionable spending.

Helping the auditors, and even allowing the public to become sleuths, is wvCheckbook.gov, a website where the public can search state spending, revenue, expenses, state employee salaries and more. Another tool for the auditor’s office is its Auditing Scholars Program, utilizing accounting majors at state colleges and universities to help with audits and giving students valuable real-world experience.

McCuskey isn’t out of ideas yet. Besides Project Mountaineer, the auditor’s office is working to bring similar transparency tools to county commissions and county school boards. McCuskey hopes in the near future to be able to work with the state Board of Education to better open up their books to the public.

“I think the idea that we can use modern technology and new ideas to reshape the way our government is run goes a long way to showing the outside world that West Virginia is in the 21st century, just like the rest of the country,” McCuskey said.

It’s all part of a goal for McCuskey to show the world that West Virginia is not the corrupt backwater sometimes portrayed by the outside world. That West Virginia can become more efficient and make its tax dollars go further for residents.

“I think we have a perception sometimes that it’s 1955 in West Virginia, but it’s 2019 here,” McCuskey said. “I think it’s time that we start to show the world that West Virginia is ready to finally reach the kind of goals that it can. We’re not there yet, but I think there are people here who are really pushing to show that West Virginia can do all the things that everyone else can do. I’m proud of the group of people that’s working on that.”

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