By John N. Mitchell
Tracie Fountain nods her head and smiles at the suggestion that this time next year she could be the first African-American ever to serve as Auditor General.
Fountain worked in the office for 29 years and rose through the ranks before she resigned in September to seek the Democratic nomination for the position.
And she said, “There is no one in Pennsylvania — no one in this race — that has the experience that I have with the Auditor General’s office. I have worked under four different auditor generals. I know how the department has been run. I know how it should be run. I know where we are strong and I’ve earned the respect of our staff.
“One of my things is when I manage I manage to be respected, not to be liked,” she continued. “And when you do that, you always make the the right decisions. It’s time for a candidate like me.”
The auditor general serves as the fiscal watchdog for the state, identifying and issuing recommendations to eliminate fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement of taxpayer funds. The office has the authority to audit any entity or person that receives state funding.
State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, and Nina Ahmad, a former president of Philadelphia NOW who ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, also are seeking the Democratic nomination for the office.
Fountain, a Pittsburgh native, lived in West Philadelphia while she attended Drexel University in the 1980s. She earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the university.
Fountain has worked in the administrations of Barbara Hafer, Bob Casey Jr., Jack Wagner and current Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who is coning to the end of his second term in the $158,764 a year job.
During her tenure, Fountain has served as the Bureau Director for the five auditing bureaus: School Audits, State-Aided audits, Volunteer Firefighter Relief Association audits, Liquor audits and Children and Youth Services Audits.
“It puts me in the unique position of seeing all of the bureaus and knowing about them inside and out,” she said. “It gives you the perspective of knowing what has happened and how to best handle them moving forward.”
As the director of Schools Audits, Fountain led the department’s first schools’ safety reviews after the 1999 Columbine school shooting. She also conducted the audits of the state’s first 12 charter schools, identifying funding disparities.
Joe Weale, a former colleague of Fountain’s who has since retired, began his career in the office the same year she started. Under the two most recent auditor generals — Wagner and DePasquale — Weale worked very closely with Fountain, who, if she does win election would be the first certified public accountant to ever hold the office.
Fountain, Weale says, “is the perfect fit for the job due to her understanding of the department and how it operates.”
“I think she is uniquely qualified due to her understanding of the department,” Weale said. “She has seen it for three decades and she has been very effective there. The office has changed dramatically over the years. It has been through some challenges and it will continue to face challenges.
“With that in mind, I would endorse her candidacy without reservation,” Weale continued, adding that Fountain’s lack of political experience “is a non-factor.”
A big part of the job will be addressing the increasing workload of an office that has been hit by extreme budget cuts. Over the three decades that Fountain served in the office, the workforce has been reduced from a little more than 800 employees to about 400.
Faced with a 10 percent cut in the office’s budget this year, employees were offered buyouts that paid them $1,000 for every year of service up to a maximum of 25 years.
The severance agreement included a stipulation that any employee who signed it could not come back and work in the office, so Fountain opted not to sign the agreement when she resigned in September.
“People have said to me that if I were elected by the people I would be able to fight that in court,” she said. “But I looked at it from an ethical and spirit of the the agreement standpoint. How can I be the auditor general even if I took the money and paid it back? That goes against the spirit of the agreement.”
Told this, Weale was not surprised.
“She is going to make the office a priority and what it does her priority,” Weale said. “That’s just how she is. That’s why she should get elected.”
John N. Mitchell is a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.