Consumer advocate refutes attack on bureau

Nevada's consumer advocate Tim Hay on Tuesday defended the Nevada Bureau of Consumer Protection against a critical audit charging he relies too much on consultants and said at least one major recommendation by auditors would violate state law.

The Bureau of Consumer Protection was sharply criticized by the Executive Branch Internal Audits Division in a draft audit obtained by the Nevada Appeal for spending more on consultants each year than all but 10 other states -- $539,000 in fiscal 2003. In his response, Hay quoted numerous legislative hearings during creation of the consumer advocate's office and the bureau to prove it was intended for the office to rely on consultants for highly-specialized, technical help in utility cases rather than hiring full-time experts in all those different fields.

The testimony includes statements as far back as 1980 when Assemblyman Bob Rusk, R-Reno, said the intent was for the state to hire highly specialized experts "on an as-needed basis."

Randolph Townsend, who proposed the consumer advocate for utility cases before his election as a Reno Senator, testified before the same committee that "the heart of consumer advocacy is the authority and the money to bring in outside experts whose areas of specialty fit the merits of the case on hand."

Hay argued any change to force more reliance on less specialized but full-time staff would hurt the advocate's ability to defend utility consumers from excessive rate hikes.

He said he believes the audit recommendation that the deceptive trade practices unit be moved from his office to the Nevada Attorney General's criminal justice division would violate state law which, in 1997, specifically put deceptive trade investigations under the Bureau of Consumer Protection.

He also questioned the attorney general's authority to force his office to move into a new building next to the main offices and charged that a member of Attorney General Brian Sandoval's staff had directed buildings and grounds to refuse to help evaluate the merits of relocation -- "which appears to inappropriately interfere with the duties of the buildings and grounds division and to be an unwarranted assertion of authority over another state agency."

The response was the latest event in a power struggle between Hay and Sandoval. The bureau is part of the state's Attorney General's Office and the consumer advocate is appointed by the attorney general. But to provide him some autonomy, the Legislature made the post a four-year term appointment and provided the office with substantial independence. Hay, appointed by Sandoval's predecessor Frankie Sue Del Papa, serves until 2005.

Sandoval requested the audit.

Hay also rejected a number of allegations made by auditors that his office used or accounted for funds incorrectly. Hay pointed out that specific expenditures criticized by auditors were authorized by the Board of Examiners -- where Sandoval is one of three voting members -- not by his office. Auditors also complained excess money wasn't properly or timely reverted from that special account -- which receives all fines, forfeitures and settlement payments -- to the general fund.

"Please note that the special account is not a (bureau) account," Hay's response states. "It is the attorney general's special account."

He pointed out in that and several other instances, auditors were objecting to accounting procedures requested or mandated by the Legislative Counsel Bureau and the state budget division -- not by his office.


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