Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Auditing Iraq

Before I became a CPA, I spent quite a few years as that asshole accountant guy who goes over your expense reports to make sure that every penny was spent properly.  I’d check over every receipt, use a map to make sure mileage was within the expected level, and made sure that every per diem meal was absolutely required based upon their travel times.  And if a conference included meals, you can bet I made sure the jerks didn’t try to claim a meal for the same period.  Nothing got past me.

I didn’t have to do that.  Nobody double-checked my work.  It wasn’t my money.  I didn’t even get a percentage of the money I saved the company, and I did save the company money.  I even did this for a city government, and nobody cares about saving money in a city government.  Why should they?  There’s no profit in it.  In fact, I strongly suspect that excessive travel claims was one of the unspoken perks of government service, as they had some of the worst travel abuses.  But not the politicians’.  Their stuff was spotless.  As a side note, I once bled on a future mayor’s expense report while removing a staple.  I guess that shows how determined I was.

But I didn’t do this because I needed to, but because I enjoyed it.  It made me feel important to make sure that the money was spent properly, and I can assure you that any good accountant feels the same way.  We don’t do it because we’re forced to or because we’re loyal to the company.  We do it because it’s fun.  And processing expense reports was one of my favorite things to do; right up there with reconciling bank statements.  And if that doesn’t sound fun to you, then don’t be an accountant, because you won’t enjoy it.

Not Important

And so it’s quite shameful for me to read that David Oliver, the former Director of Management and Budget for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, said that he doesn’t think it’s important to track billions of dollars.  

Or in his words:
"I have no idea, I can't tell you whether or not the money went to the right things or didn't - nor do I actually think it is important," Oliver says on the tape . "Billions of dollars of their money disappeared, yes I understand, I'm saying what difference does it make?"

Holy shit!  Here I was, some lowly accountant tracking down each Big Mac purchase and hotel stay, and this idiot doesn’t think billions of dollars are important.  And sure, his excuse is that his quote was taken out of context, and that he was only referring to what happened to the money after it left his office, and that his office didn’t have enough people to track the money after that.

But that’s no better.  They teach us in auditing to do what’s necessary to ensure that everything’s being accounted for properly.  And if your firm doesn’t have enough manpower to do the job, then you either need to get more manpower or you can’t take the job.  If his office wasn’t big enough, it was his responsibility to make it bigger.  But no.  That asshole just let billions of dollars go out and didn’t give a damn.

I could be wrong, but it’s the obvious guess that Oliver’s a conservative.  And conservatives have this weird-ass worldview that people can be trusted to do the right thing, just as long as the government doesn’t try to stop them.  And that it’s government regulation that make people try to game the system to their advantage, rather than the thing that stops it from being worse.  And that’s why conservatives should never be auditors.  Because when common decency doesn’t force a bookkeeper or money manager to do the right thing, the fear of an auditor certainly will.  And that doesn’t work unless the auditor plans to do his job.

But in this case, they didn’t need auditors.  They just needed some good old fashioned bookkeepers.  Like me.  You can bet I would have tracked down every penny of that nine billion dollars, had they let me.  And I’m sure there are lots of good bookkeepers all over America that would have gladly done the same.  Not because it was our jobs, but because we love checking over expenses.  It makes normally milquetoast bookkeepers into real ballbusters.  And our government has people doing that all the time.  Conservatives call it “redtape”, but I call it a good day’s work.

But I really think that was the whole point: They didn’t want anyone tracking down the money.  They also don’t think we need auditors.  They just wanted to throw a bunch of money around (bribes, corruption, and more bribes) and can’t figure out why things didn’t work out better.  But the problem isn’t just that we didn’t have proper auditors in Iraq.  The problem is that Congress gave up their audit function all together, and with that, the entire Executive Branch had no reason to give a damn.  

So when Oliver was expressing his disinterest in where the money went, he was just parroting the Big Boss.  But now that Americans hired new auditors last November, you can bet Oliver cares a whole lot more about where that money went.

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