Jennifer Li Wong, Steve Levine race for city auditor, promising transparency, accountability

Doug Smith/Staff

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Berkeley residents Jennifer Li Wong and Steve Levine are going head-to-head in the race to replace current City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan.

Both candidates bring years of experience to the position. Wong, a UC Berkeley alumna, said she has worked for 17 years as a federal auditor. Levine, also a campus alumnus, worked in the private sector for more than 16 years as a certified fraud examiner.

While Hogan said she was sad to be leaving her position, she looks back on her career as city auditor fondly, calling the work “fascinating and rewarding.”

When asked what her advice is for the candidates, Hogan said: “My advice is to stay independent, speak through your audits, steer clear of partisanship and try to model the kind of public service we would all like to see at the national level. This is an opportunity to make sure it starts here at the local level.”

In her college career, Wong said, she lobbied campus administration for UC Berkeley to become the first college to provide vegan residence hall food. Wong graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics. After Wong moved to New York, where she got a master’s degree in public administration and began her work in public service at the local level.

As a federal auditor, Wong said she gained experience identifying ways to improve federal programs, ultimately benefiting taxpayers as a result. In addition, Wong said she has conducted multiple audits on the Internal Revenue Service, and she has served as the executive director for auditor forums in the past. Both roles have prepared her to “hit the ground running” if she is elected, she said.

“I care about ensuring not only transparency but accountability, and ensuring that services and programs are being delivered equitably,” Wong said.

Levine initially had a career in journalism, starting with his role as a city government beat reporter for The Daily Californian. After college, Levine turned to investigative journalism, working for the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization, and at the Washington Post, reporting on finance, business, the environment and other social issues.

The former journalist spent more than a decade conducting anti-fraud work in the private sector, conducting several international investigations.

Levine noted that the city auditor is responsible for overseeing the city’s payroll — a function that he said he would move to another department, since the current city auditor must hire an outside auditor to monitor the city’s payroll. The position of the city auditor is currently overpaid, Levine added. If elected, Levine would reform the office by reducing the auditor’s salary by an initial 20 percent and then 10 percent annually thereafter.

A term limit on the city auditor position would transform the position from a profession to a duty, keeping the city auditor out of the “machine of the city,” according to Levine.

“If you’re outside of that, you can be independent, which is what the auditor should be; you can look at the city structurally, look how different departments operate and see how we can serve the city better,” Levine said.

Wong said that as an immigrant and a first-generation college student, one of her proudest achievements is the program she spearheaded for the U.S. Government Accountability Office in partnership with the Goldman School of Public Policy, which recruited more than 500 graduate students of color to educate them on federal audits.

Levine said he challenges his opponent to run a “finance-free campaign,” which would mean that she would have to refrain from fundraising for her campaign or accepting endorsements, in order to demonstrate independence.

In response, Wong said city auditor candidates, unlike City Council candidates, are not provided with a pool of funds by the city to “match” their campaign fundraising and thus must rely entirely on their own financial strategies.

“I’m gonna raise money just like most candidates do,” Wong said.

Hogan announced that she endorses Wong for city auditor.

Francesca Munsayac is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @fcfm_dc.

A previous version of this article may have implied that Jennifer Li Wong worked for the IRS. In fact Wong is an independent auditor at the Government Accountability Office and conducts audits on the IRS.