The governor on Thursday tapped longtime affordable housing advocate Kevin Walsh to be the next state comptroller—a powerful watchdog figure tasked with rooting out fraud, abuse and waste at all levels of government in New Jersey.
His selection could revive the position’s stance as entirely independent from the control of Gov. Phil Murphy – and any other governor – under state law. Walsh begins his role Monday as acting state comptroller pending confirmation from the state Senate, but he could serve his full six years in an acting capacity.
Walsh said at a Thursday afternoon press conference in Newark alongside Murphy that he would “pledge” to “call balls and strikes” – an oft-used phrase by the governor – in his role as the state’s official watchdog.
“The comptroller’s role is to make sure the law is followed when the government spends taxpayers’ money,” Walsh said.
He attended Rutgers Law School in Camden and joined the Fair Share Housing Center in 2000, signing his name onto many lawsuits to force local governments to accept more affordable housing within their real estate developments. Walsh was also counsel on the New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a practice that was ultimately abolished more than a decade ago.
Although the state comptroller was first signed into law in 1934, New Jersey did not have one until Matthew Boxer in 2008, the year after then-Gov. Jon Corzine approved a bill restoring the position. The state’s inspector general and a similar position for rooting out Medicaid fraud were absorbed into the state comptroller’s office.
State law gives the comptroller the authority to investigate the state government, public universities, independent state authorities and local school and municipal governments. Walsh would sit on the governor’s cabinet but have virtually total independence to perform his job. He will have the authority to subpoena individuals in question and audit government finances.
“New Jerseyans expect government to be efficient … and accountable … My job will be to demand answers and speak truthfully about waste, fraud, corruption and inefficiency,” Walsh said.
Boxer’s term was renewed under former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and he left the post in 2013. The most recent state comptroller, Philip Degnan, left the post to pursue a seat in the state superior court.
“I know that not all fights have been politically popular, but they were the right fights, and that’s exactly why he will make a strong comptroller,” Murphy said Thursday. “I know Kevin will stand firm against any efforts by anybody to game the system for its own personal gain.”
The role could put Walsh at ends with some of the most powerful political figures in the state. That was the case with Boxer during his tenure, who scrutinized state contracts with businesses tied to South Jersey political powerbroker George Norcross, as well as Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.
But Walsh said that he would not view his new job “in terms of engaging powerful folks.”
“I like to view it in terms of doing the right thing,” he said. “If that comes with certain consequences or tensions, that’s part of the job I’m in.”