Brown County Auditor Nina Cox said people have the right to ask questions of public officials and request documents, as county judge candidate Joe Cooksey has done.
And Cox said she’s made it a practice to refrain from publicly addressing any candidates for public office.
But Cox, 46, said she believes Cooksey is attacking her personally in comments he has made about her office on his Web site, in campaign ads and at candidate forums.
Cooksey is challenging incumbent County Judge Ray West in next month’s Republican primary election. Lewis Lehman is also a candidate for county judge in the GOP primary.
Cooksey has attacked West for the county’s lack of an annual outside audit and has said that Cox, who has an English degree, should be replaced as auditor by a certified public accountant.
“I don’t normally get involved in elections, but my gosh, he’s just smearing me all over the place,” Cox said.
“No, I don’t object to any questions being asked, and we follow the letter of the law to the tee on whether we’re required to have a comprehensive independent audit.
“ … When (Cooksey) starts speaking about my personal accomplishments, I take it personally.”
Cox said she can’t publicly support any candidate and stressed that her comments should not be taken that she is supporting or defending West. “I’m doing this to defend my own character from what I feel like are baseless personal attacks,” Cox said. “I like to stay in the background. That’s where auditors should be.”
District Judge Steve Ellis, who appointed Cox as county auditor in 2001 and has re-appointed her every two years, said the only reasons under the law for removing an auditor are incompetence and official misconduct.
“I’m not going to remove somebody who’s done a good job just because she’s not a CPA,” Ellis said. “It’s just a situation where I want quality people to do their job. She is qualified or she wouldn’t have been appointed in the first place. She’s done a good job. I have confidence in her.
“ … She’s not perfect. No one is. There’s no evidence I have seen of any incompetence or official misconduct.”
Ellis said it would be “hugely expensive” to commission an annual outside audit of the entire county government and the law doesn’t require it.
Cooksey, contacted Wednesday for comment, stood by his statements. He said a county auditor should have an accounting degree and be a CPA.
“Nobody is attacking Mrs. Cox personally,” Cooksey said.
Cox said she knew she was going to respond to Cooksey’s statements about her office when she read a Bulletin article the morning of Feb. 12. Cooksey was quoted as saying at a candidates forum that if elected, he would “insist, no, I will nicely demand, to Judge Ellis that the county auditor position be filled immediately with a CPA, not an individual with a degree in English.”
Cox said her mother had died just hours before she read that article. She said she took some time to “get stronger emotionally and back on my feet. I stayed home for a little bit and regrouped.”
She said she isn’t surprised at Cooksey’s campaign statements because “he was combative from the first (open records) request we got.” She said she remembers the first time he contacted her office to seek documents. It was nearly a year ago – Feb. 27, 2009 – and “he wanted to see all the claims we had paid from a certain time period.
“ … He wasn’t happy because we couldn’t go down right then and pull all of the invoices (and) claims that he wanted to examine. We did, however, fulfill it on March 6.”
Cox has a large black notebook, about 3 inches thick, that contains Cooksey’s requests for public documents, as well as the documents that were provided. She said he has wanted to see documents including inventory records, bills, claims, printouts of checks and transaction ledgers.
“I wouldn’t characterize them as nuisance requests. Everybody has the right to ask for public information,” Cox said.
She said she doesn’t think Cooksey has been after genuine information. “Even when you give him the information and you try to answer his questions, he doesn’t accept your answers because, it seems, he has pre-determined in his mind the answer he wants to hear.”
Cooksey said Cox should cite an example.
Cox did. She said she had tried to explain Cooksey that her office “doesn’t use obsolete line items from 2005 for the 2010 budget.” That’s an example of his belief that funds are missing, Cox said.
When asked if she thinks Cooksey is out to get people, Cox replied, “I think his actions answer that question.
“ … He can take the tiniest detail and twist it into the biggest conspiracy theory you have ever heard. I don’t think he has any understanding of government accounting.”
Cooksey said he’s not out to get people. “I’m out to hold people accountable under the law,” he said. “They don’t like to see me coming because I’m the sheriff of the courthouse.”