People - April 2005

State auditor figured he could do better job
By Frank Maley

Les Merritt seems to have the right pedigree for state auditor. He’s the first certified public accountant to fill the post. He has been a Wake County commissioner, which gives him grassroots political experience, and he has performed public audits as a partner in Zebulon-based Merritt, Petway, Mills & Hockaday. After losing in 2000, he beat Ralph Campbell in a close election last November.

But is he tough enough? Campbell frequently riled bureaucrats, including fellow Democrats, with his high-profile audits, but voters knew he was on the job and returned him to office twice. Merritt, 53, plans to keep a lower profile. Since November, he has met with heads of state agencies and says he hopes to change the duck-and-cover mentality that they told him guided their relationships with his predecessor.

An auditor, he says, earns his salt by correcting small problems before they become big embarrassments. “We’re not out there aiming at having a sensational report or surprising anybody with things that could have been headed off earlier, so I really want to change how the office operates.” Doing that could require more manpower. But first, Merritt plans to see if he can accomplish his goals merely by doing things more efficiently. He also wants to take a closer look at how nonprofits spend state money.

He grew up on a tobacco farm in Sampson County and earned two bachelor’s degrees from N.C. State University. He got one in economics in 1974 and another in accounting four years later after management training at Central Carolina Bank, now part of Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks. “I found out that I could really like that accounting stuff, I guess, especially when I was going through the audit department.”

After passing his CPA exam, he moved to Zebulon in 1981 to work for Robert Privette’s practice and made partner in 1983. He went solo in ’88. When he sold his stake last year to eliminate possible conflicts of interest, his firm employed 11 CPAs. About 40% of revenue came from public agencies. All along, he had followed what the auditor’s office was doing and finally decided he could do it better.

Having a Republican auditor might spook Democrats, but Merritt says they have no more to fear than members of his party do. And he says he’s not afraid to make people mad. “I can talk about bridge building all I want to, but I’m sure there’s going to come a time that you’re on somebody’s foot, whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat, and you got to go where that carries you. It’s just the nature of the office.”