Auditor Daryl Purpera

Louisiana Auditor Daryl Purpera chats with Judith Solomon of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities after a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Medicaid on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl G. Purpera said Monday he’s moving to a higher calling – as pastor of a Baptist church – and would step down March 2 after a decade as the state’s chief watchdog over how government agencies spend public money.

Purpera has served as legislative auditor since chosen by a majority of the Legislature on April 6, 2010. But the 59-year-old certified public accountant has been working in state government since graduating LSU in 1985, first as an auditor for the state Department of Agriculture, then in the Legislative Auditor’s Office since he was 21 years old. The auditor oversees a staff of accountants and investigators who review the books of more than 3,500 state and local government units and affiliated entities.

Years ago, Purpera had volunteered to handle youth ministry at the First Baptist Church of Central. When the minister left four years ago for another pulpit, Purpera started filling in. The congregation voted to offer him the ministry full time.

“That’s where my passion is right now,” Purpera said. “The time is right. The church needs more attention.”

As auditor, he’s proud of insisting state retirement systems make more conservative presumptions about the investments that are used to pay pensions for state employees, troopers, teachers and others. Also, he required more thorough reports from the private accounting firms that review local and parish finances. That move picked up faster those local jurisdictions that are on the edge of financial problems. The most recent list of “fiscally distressed municipalities” has 20 towns and villages. The early warning system allows auditors to work with Louisiana's chronically underfunded municipal governments in hopes of keeping them from sliding into state oversight during which an appointed administrator pushes aside popularly elected officials and takes control of the finances.

He also set off a storm when one audit criticized that Medicaid, government health insurance coverage for the low income, “is being run kind of willy-nilly, loosey-goosey” without tightened controls. His comments gave cover for several high-profile Republicans, including U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry, to blast the Louisiana Health Department run by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration.

Purpera made his announcement during Monday's Legislative Audit Advisory Council meeting. State Sen. Jay Luneau, an Alexandria Democrat who has occasionally criticized how Purpera’s audits have been used politically, immediately and jokingly moved not to accept Purpera’s resignation.

Purpera noted that the decision of a successor is totally in the purview of the Louisiana Legislature. But he hopes lawmakers consider someone from his office’s staff. By law, a candidate has to be a certified public accountant.

“But you should be able to perform a government audit, talk the talk,” said Purpera, who is the first auditor chosen from the office staff.

“It really shouldn’t be a political position. The auditor should be bipartisan and just tell it like he sees it,” he added.

One of the first to hold the position, back in the 1930s when it was called Supervisor of Public Accounts, was Alice Grosjean, a 20-something-year old aide to Huey Long who the Kingfish first appointed as Secretary of State and then to what amounted to the state’s overseer of how tax dollars and loans were spent.

Changes in the position were made in 1936, the year after Long was killed in the halls of the State Capitol. The job was renamed Legislative Auditor in 1962 when the authority over the office was moved from governor to the Legislature.

The auditor’s job description was put for the first time in 1974 in the state Constitution. Article III, Section 11 laid out that the auditor would double check how government agencies were spending public dollars. The Constitution also required the auditor to be approved by a majority in each legislative chamber.

Purpera had been First Assistant Legislative Auditor to Steve Theriot, a former Jefferson Parish legislator who was auditor from 2004 to 2010. Purpera assumed the top position temporarily until elected by a majority of the House and Senate from a slate of candidates submitted by a recommendation commission.

Theriot replaced Dan Kyle, who had been an accounting professor at LSU until appointed legislative auditor in 1989.

Under the law, Purpera’s First Assistant Auditor Thomas H. Cole would take over as auditor temporarily until the Legislature decides. House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, will meet later this week to decide the next steps. Cole had no comment when asked if he was interested in becoming the next auditor.

In 2010, a commission considered any nominee submitted by a member of the Legislature. The commission was comprised of the president and president pro tempore of the Senate, the speaker and speaker pro tempore of the House, the chairman and vice chairman of the Legislative Audit Advisory Council, and the chairman, or vice chairman if designated to serve by the chairman, of the following committees: Senate and Governmental Affairs, House and Governmental Affairs, Senate Finance, House Appropriations, Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs, and House Ways and Means.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.