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Golden State's stimulus sheriff is ready to protect 'a big pot of gold'

WASHINGTON -- Laura Chick says it's a lonely and unpopular job acting as a watchdog of the public's money, but she learned one thing during her eight-year reign as city controller in Los Angeles: When a light is shined in a dark corner, you never know what's going to scurry out.

After quitting her job to become California's new inspector general, Chick is bringing her wattage to Sacramento, where she'll try to make sure that every penny of the state's federal stimulus money is properly spent.

During a visit to Washington this week, she told a reporter that she'd be in charge of overseeing roughly $50 million. Then she quickly corrected herself.

"I'm sorry -- $50 billion," said Chick, 64. "You know what? I'm used to, in the city of L.A., talking about millions -- and now I'm talking about billions. And I keep having trouble using the `B word.' It's huge. ... It's a big pot of gold."

Chick, who reported to work on April 27, is busy learning the ropes. She even has a Blackberry for the first time in her life.

As the first state inspector general of her kind, she came to Washington to huddle with a bevy of federal inspectors general and with President Barack Obama's top accountability official. She's now part of an oversight team that's promising unprecedented transparency in monitoring how states spend the $787 billion in stimulus money approved by Congress in February.

Chick said she wants to use a little preventative medicine, developing a simple list of do's and don'ts for how local officials can spend the federal largesse. And she plans to launch a public relations blitz to spread the word.

"I want to go out up and down and side to side in our great state and offer people help to know how they should be doing things and what they shouldn't be doing," Chick said. "I can give you an example: It's time to award a contract and you're thinking of awarding it to your brother-in-law. Not."

Chick, a New York native who has lived in California for most of her life, developed a reputation in Los Angeles as a feisty and scrappy player. She served eight years on the Los Angeles City Council before becoming city controller, an elected position, in 2001.

She pokes fun at her last name.

"Can you imagine? My title is controller -- Controller Chick," she said. "I used to say in speeches if you changed the 'er' to 'ing,' I'm every man's worst nightmare. What do you fear more than a controlling chick?"

Expect Chick to maintain a high profile in her $175,000-a-year post. She said she does her oversight by working closely with the press to fuel the indignation that an audit can produce, forcing public officials to change their behavior.

"I've been accused of being a media hound and I have pled guilty," she said. "Why? I wanted media coverage because I knew that unless the public was paying attention to what I was doing, nothing -- nothing -- was going to change."

Chick said her hope is that the massive stimulus program will help improve the economy and increase confidence in government. And that means uncovering any dirt before reporters do.

"We've got an opportunity to show the public that government can actually do things well," Chick said. "No one's expecting that there won't be embarrassments, mistakes, criminal wrongdoing. There will be. But if government can clean its own house and go after these things, I think it's going to go a long way to help jumpstart the public having faith in government again."

Chick noted an irony surrounding the stimulus, the largest spending bill in history: States and local units of government are being asked to spend money faster and better than ever before, at a time when many of them have been hit with budget cuts and are already stretched to the limits.

Many in Washington are sympathetic and say it will be important to focus on oversight at the front end. A bill introduced in the House would allow states and local units of government to spend one-half of 1 percent of their stimulus money on oversight.

Democratic Rep. Brad Miller of North Carolina, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, said that traditionally oversight has come too late.

"By the time we learn what went wrong, the money's already gone and we have nothing to show for it," he said.

Members of Congress and the Obama administration are counting on the public to help them make sure the money is well spent. Toward that end, they're promising to post all spending details on a Web site that will allow the public to track every nickel.

Democratic Rep. Edolphus Towns of New York, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said it will be important to closely track the money to avoid the outrage that resulted when AIG executives received $165 million in bonuses after the company received federal bailout money.

Towns, who met with Chick during her Washington visit, said the risk of fraud always increases when government money is spent quickly, noting that 7 percent is usually lost to fraud and waste, which would amount to $55 billion in the case of the stimulus.

"The sad truth is once fraudulent dollars go out the door, the federal government historically is only able to collect pennies on the dollar," Towns said.

Chick said she's a Democrat but that she has defied pigeonholing, noting that she's a fiscal conservative in part because she started out as a social worker and because she was raised by Depression-era parents.

She was appointed to her job by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor cited Chick's track record, saying she was "uniquely qualified" after leading Los Angeles through more than 170 audits that exposed a backlog of untested rape kits, contracting irregularities at the city airport, millions of dollars in overbilling by a public relations firm and harassment at the city's fire department.

"I always knew that I was not popular in City Hall, that I annoyed a lot of people because I was always poking and prodding and scrutinizing and talking out what I found, and talking very publicly," she said. "What's fun about it? I like finding the truth. I like knowing how things are operating."

At the time of her appointment, Chick said she was coming to Sacramento "to deter, detect and disclose any waste, fraud and abuse" involved with the stimulus program. She said the governor is expecting her to operate independently, as she did at City Hall, even if that means exposing wrongdoing on the part of state officials.

"He understands that he might not like me some day," Chick said. "I have an independent operation. He knows my reputation and he wanted me. He hired me to go after the problems."