Tom Wagner Calls It a Career
Says the longtime state auditor: "When it's time to go, you know it's time to go."
Illustration by Tim Foley
Tom Wagner didn’t see it coming. The weather was hot and he was worn out after a long trip to Detroit. Things seemed fuzzy. He must have picked up a bug on the plane, he thought. He just had to slough it off, Wagner told himself. Still, he was tired, more tired than he ever remembered feeling. He couldn’t shake it.
Soon a relative called an ambulance and he was taken to the emergency room.
He woke up in a hospital bed with a doctor standing next to him.
Confusion quickly transformed into alarm.
The doctor quietly said, “You may die.”
Things weren’t fuzzy now.
That was Labor Day 2011. R. Thomas Wagner, Delaware’s state auditor for as long as most voters can remember, was suddenly feeling very much alone. The doctors at Kent General told him he was dehydrated from a combination of his high-blood pressure pills and the medicine he took for his Crohn’s disease.
The news was about to get worse.
His kidneys had failed, they said. His kidneys were operating at about 30 percent. He had to undergo emergency dialysis.
They gave him more bad news. His kidneys would not get better. They would slowly decline.
His life would be far different from this point on.
Yet that wasn’t the most vivid memory of that day.
That would come later, when he was alone, and the doctors and nurses were gone. As he lay in the hospital bed, his fears and his doubts turned to panic.
Then something happened. Peace enveloped his whole body. His panic subsided. His nerves calmed. His breath deepened and soothed him. Wagner felt calmer than he had ever felt before or has felt since. This peace was totally unexpected.
As hard as it is to reconcile, that unexpected peace in 2011 would alter Delaware’s political scene in 2018.
Wagner adjusted to his limited kidney function. He went back to work and would go on to run for re-election. But the doctors were right. Slowly his kidneys grew worse. He grew more tired. He felt weaker. The Crohn’s disease flared repeatedly. He began missing work for hospital stays. He passed about 20 kidney stones, including ones that involved surgery. His kidney function dipped to 8 percent. Then, before he had major surgery, he dutifully designated his deputy as the head of the office in his absence. He thought it was a limited, run-of-the-mill temporary act.
Yet these developments would lead to two big headlines in 2018. First, Wagner would surprise most of the state by announcing in February something he had never announced before: I will not seek re-election. Second, his run-of-the-mill designation of power would lead to a controversial dismissal, official hearings, special investigations and a truly wild-card entry into the race to replace Wagner as auditor.
A sizable number of Delawareans did not exist in 1989 when Gov. Mike Castle appointed Tom Wagner, a bank examiner and the former mayor of Camden, to fill the empty post of state auditor. Castle is a Republican. That is important because Wagner is a Republican too. (Among his valued possessions are signed copies of books by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.) More to the point, for a generation Wagner was the only Republican holding a statewide Delaware office.
Wagner ran on his own for the post in 1990. Then he ran for re-election in 1994. Again in 1998. And, again in 2002. Still again in 2006. Once more in 2010. Finally, he ran again in 2014. Wagner planned to run in 2018 as well, but more on that later. Seven times.
Governors, cabinet members, legislators and Supreme Court justices have come and gone. Yet Tom Wagner kept winning the voters’ approval.
He naturally takes the long view.
The biggest change since becoming auditor way back when? “I had 57 people when I first took office in 1989. Now there are 17. That’s counting me.” It isn’t just a Delaware thing. It is happening across the nation. Governing Magazine reports that auditor offices face cuts first. Arguments that audits provide good returns on investments fall on deaf legislative ears. Pennsylvania’s auditor told Governing he has yet to hear a taxpayer ask for more waste, fraud and abuse in government. Yet the cuts came anyway. Wagner says it is curious that the only other office to face sizable cutbacks is the welfare fraud division.
Still, he says, you work with what you have. The goal is to maximize the talent in the office.
Wagner says that back in 1989, he knew changes had to be made in the auditor’s office because the auditing world was changing. He downsized that 57 number to 42 and used the savings to contract out specialty work. The nature of government auditing went from an amateur endeavor to a certified one. Delaware soon had to follow national accounting and auditing standards. Federal dollars must be tracked through the system the way the federal government wants them tracked. And Delaware’s annual financial statement of taxes raised and funds spent must strictly follow national certification standards. If they don’t, Delaware’s AAA bond ratings will evaporate.
“What they have really done is controlled my office by just not funding positions for me,” he says. “But I fought back by upgrading the quality of performance. The auditor’s office is the quality of the people. When I took office, there was no one on staff with certification.”
Wagner thinks the greatest overall success of the office was the upgrade.
“By focusing on quality, with these cutbacks, it is to me amazing that we got our constitutional level done … and done well. You get no kudos for that.”
Naturally, anyone in office as long as Wagner has made his share of enemies. He has been accused of staying out of sight until election time and popping up at the last minute with a headline-grabbing audit report. The News Journal editorial writers, for example, repeatedly accused him of “remote control” management. Bloggers on both sides of the political spectrum faulted him with showing favoritism or failing to pursue the bad guys.
Wagner shakes his head. He has heard this before.
“I have always taken the position that my job is the fact finder,” Wagner says softly. “The prosecutor’s job is to prosecute.”
Auditors are limited in what they can do, he adds. Legislators write the laws. They decide whether auditors can run after one case and ignore another. They deal the punishment to offenders, if any. “I find the facts. The prosecutors prosecute. I have never criticized any action taken or not taken by the state attorney general or the U.S. attorney.”
But he does follow tips. One came in 2007. It led him to the Delaware Department of Finance and a slick conspiracy to siphon off escheat payments by department employees. Hundreds of thousands of dollars disappeared. Prosecutors dropped the ball, but he persisted. The conspiracy was broken and the conspirators jailed. The case was a hard one for Wagner. He was a good friend of the father and stepmother of a conspirator.
Laws dictate much of the auditor’s work. The federal monies must be tracked. The state’s comprehensive financial report certified. Then there are legal mandates that raise eyebrows. The teacher of the year award, for example, must be audited. Why? Someone complained and got the legislature to require an audit.
There is not much discretion in the job. Still, all of the auditor’s work is posted online. Taxpayers are free to examine it. But the language is technical, a sort of auditor-ese that is meant to satisfy standards, not casual reading.
But through all the years and all the audits, did he learn any lessons?
Wagner thinks about the question for a moment. Finally, he says, “I would have taken a much tougher approach on our audit reports. Say we do a report on internal controls of an agency. We would write it up and the state would do nothing about it.
“We can’t continue to have these findings and problems, and then let everyone smile and do nothing.”
He said some smaller programs, especially the outsourced ones, often lose internal control of the money. The weatherization program, for example, was problematic. “We reported that for years, but nothing was ever done about it.” Finally, it developed into a crisis. “Once you lose control of these programs, you don’t know who is getting money and what is being done with it.
“Until this day I still get grief from bloggers who are upset about some of the programs getting money. I followed the rules and delivered the facts. But I should have pushed more. Until you take a tough stance, you can just keep doing the same thing over and over.”
Now, he says, that is a problem for the next auditor.
“My intention was to do another term,” Wagner says of his decision not to run. “Then with my health issues, I started struggling with that decision. Quite frankly, if Ken Simpler had not ran and won, I would have run again no matter what, because you just can’t have one party ruling everything in a state government. That’s just a recipe for disaster.” Republican Ken Simpler’s election as state treasurer “gave me a little bit more flexibility.”
“But after a couple of mornings, when I would do a sort of a ‘look-in-the-mirror’ type of thing, I said to myself, ‘Who are you kidding?’ You sometimes think in your mind, ‘Look at who’s running’ and ‘I can do this job.’ Then you realize you are kidding yourself. There are other people who can do this job.
“I didn’t want to be one of those people who hold on when they shouldn’t hold on. When it’s time to go, you know it’s time to go. And I know it’s time to go.”
He admits he was like a ballplayer reluctant to face the end of his playing days.
“But once I made my decision, I knew it was the right decision. And I haven’t second-guessed it one iota. “
Wagner admits friends have told him that he would win if his name were just on the ballot, that his experience and his name would put him over the top.
“That’s not me. The thought of just saying OK, just laying on my experience and my name on the ballot, wasn’t just feasible for me. It didn’t feel right. If you do something like that, you’re really cheating the taxpayers.”
Wagner does not worry that the “deputy” scandal that erupted into headlines will tarnish his legacy. As his health problems developed and he faced major surgery that would take him out of office for a spell, he wrote a letter passing authority to his deputy, Kathleen Ann Davies. He would later fire Davies for allegedly abusing that power and taking unauthorized actions. Davies disputes the charges. Like all internal government controversies, this one has led to charges, countercharges, hearings, investigations and thick, nicely collated reports that only partisans will read. It also has lapped over into the 2018 election campaign for auditor.
Wagner is looking to his own future. He faces kidney dialysis and, eventually, a kidney transplant. (He has a donor lined up.) His hope is that within a few months, his health and energy will be restored.
He is 63. “That’s relatively young,” he says with a smile. And what will he do? A return to politics? Perhaps. More likely, he thinks, some sort of community work. Rescue dogs? Helping prisoners? Who knows?
For now, one of the state’s most successful political careers is coming to an end. Wagner waves off talk about his legacy and controversies.
“I don’t care if someone thinks I’m the smartest or dumbest person in the world. Just as long as I know that I have my integrity. As long I know it and my friends know it, that’s all that counts.”