Last spring I was in the back of the room in a downtown Los Angeles building that houses the governor's office when he is in the city. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced with much fanfare the appointment of Laura Chick to the newly created -- not to mention first of its kind in the nation -- post of inspector general. The inspector general is charged with keeping tabs on how California spends the estimated $50 billion plus it expects to receive from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus bill.
Chick, of course, had made her reputation in the City of Los Angeles, where she proved a fearless crusader and investigator, always asking, and usually answering, the question: How is taxpayer money being spent? Often, the answer she came up with was not exactly the one city officials and various vendors preferred to hear.
So, it was with great expectations that Chick took her show on the road, or, in this case, to Sacramento, eager to apply her watchdog techniques to a much broader canvas.
At the time of her appointment, that day, in that room, in that downtown office building, I asked the governor whether Chick would get the staff she obviously would need in order to properly do her job.
He assured all present that she would, within, of course, the monetary constraints the state is operating under, which are many.
Sadly, said Chick, in a wide-ranging interview with HuffPost, all the staffing she got added up to just five trained auditors.
"I'm not going to deny it's been a struggle to get adequate resources," Chick told me. But, she insists, "I was not surprised."
In recent weeks, Chick and her small office have faced some press criticism for not doing enough to keep track of the Recovery Act money.
An Associated Press report that clearly raised Chick's blood pressure said that eight months into her job, she "has not produced any audits or formal reports." It went on to say that her office has not even probed a single whistle-blower case, which is part of her mandate.
In my conversation with Chick, she didn't deny the basic facts of the AP story, but she said that it missed a very important point. The main reason her office had not produced any audits or formal reports, as yet, was that of the roughly $8 billion the state has thus far received from the Recovery Act funds, few of those dollars have actually been spent. In other words, how can you investigate vendors for how they are using federal stimulus money when they, in fact, have not as yet received it.
Change is coming
But, Chick tells HuffPost, everything is about to change radically, and fast.
She has been given a group of what she calls "top notch" auditors and investigators, borrowed from other state agencies, that will expand her "lean and mean" team from five to 16 members within the next couple of weeks. Some have already checked in. "My first two teams of auditors arrived," said Chick.
Chick says she now will have the staff needed to "send teams out in the street." She says that even before then, she has already started "poking at state departments."
She promised to conduct "random spot checks" of the various agencies, vendors and contractors who will be getting federal money and, she says, she actually "hopes to find problems."
"I want to be able to share lessons," says the so-called stimulus czar.
A matter of history
Chick faces an uphill battle on several fronts: She already has some other state government officials nipping at her, some apparently in an effort to defend their own turf.
The same AP story that accused Chick of "falling short of expectations" also quotes the State Auditor, Elaine Howle, as saying, "I'm not sure what the vision was for that office compared to what my office does and has done for years." Howle, of course, quickly adds that she has the utmost of respect for Chick.
Even history, or to be more precise, historical preservation, is getting in the way of what Chick is trying to do.
This week, she dispatched a letter to Gov. Schwarzenegger asking his help in speeding up the process by which the state Office of Historic Preservation must approve many projects before they can begin.
That office has lost key personnel due to the severe economic crisis the state finds itself in, this just as the federal stimulus money is starting to flow in.
There's been a 200% increase in projects, says Chick, that the office has to give its seal of approval to, and the backlog means delays of 60 days or longer. This translates, Chick says, into "hundreds of projects" stalled and "hundreds" of workers remaining idle... and without pay.
To help get things on the fast track, Chick is asking the governor to modify furloughs (many state workers currently must take three unpaid days off each month) for key personnel and to find ways "to transfer staff from other departments," among other things.
"California didn't anticipate the need for more resources," she tells me.
She says she is "confident" that Schwarzenegger will get this problem solved; she hadn't sought his help on this matter until now.
Her political foes, and there are many, would be ill advised to take Laura Chick for granted. I saw what she was able to do in Los Angeles for many years. I have no doubt, given time, proper staffing and, yes, money, that she can be just as effective at the state level.
In many ways, she has only just begun to fight.
Charles Feldman is a journalist, media consultant and co-author of the book, "No Time To Think-The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle." He has covered the police and politics in Los Angeles since 1995. He is a regular contributor of investigative reporting to KNX1070 Newsradio.