The Harris County Auditor’s Office, 1905-1980
The Harris County Archives began in November 2002 as the first professionally run county archives as a part of a records management program in all 254 counties of Texas. The first collection we received was from the Assessor and Collector of Taxes. The second major collection was the repatriation of records from the State Archives stored at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center. Many of them had been saved in the Auditor’s Office – over 1100 volumes and 40 cubic feet of files. The third major collection was from the Auditor’s Office. Records found in a closet have yielded some vital records for the history of Harris County.
During most of the 19th century, there were few checks on the Commissioners Court.
An incident in postbellum Texas probably best exemplifies the situation. A District Judge whose area included McLennan County (Waco) jailed the County Judge and Commissioners for contempt of court when they ignored his orders for spending money. And then, a local physician and the County Judge found that the District Judge was insane and jailed him for lunacy. They had adjoining cells. The checks and balances seemed to be working!
An amendment to the Constitution of 1876 in 1891 granted supervisory powers to the district courts to review acts of the Commissioners Court. By 1905 it became apparent that financial review was also necessary. Created by statute rather than a constitutional amendment, the District Judges with the County Judge would appoint an auditor for 2-year terms. In 1917 this was changed so only the District Judges would appoint the auditor, guaranteeing the office’s independence.
The County Auditor's Office basically exercises financial oversight over all transactions of the county.
Harris County’s first auditor was John B. Ashe, who was appointed in 1905. Little is know about Ashe except that he acted more as a “glorified bookkeeper” than an auditor.
This image is of the first Auditor’s Voucher Register in the County Archives. The first entry is a payment on August 9, 1905, to Sam Cohen of $33.30 for prisoner’s clothing.
Basically, by all accounts, Harris County’s financial situation was a mess.
“Those were the free-spending days. Any official or employee of the county could buy as he liked, and the county had to pay the bills. To find out if the county had any money, it was necessary to telephone the bank. If the county had any, it didn’t have it very long. There was no inventory system of county property, no budget, no competitive bidding, and no acceptable system of accounting or record-keeping.”
At one time, the commissioners borrowed money even though they had $75,000 in the bank.
John Ashe’s tenure as auditor did nothing to change the status quo. In 1913 Harris County government was:
Operating on a scrip basis, issuing anticipation warrants against expected revenue.
Bonds were selling at a discount
Sinking funds were below standard
“By business standards, the county was bankrupt.”
Ashe told County Judge W. H. Ward that he was no longer interested in being an auditor. The county was set to experience a new beginning.
June 14, 1913, the District Judges and County Judge W. H. Ward chose Harry L. Washburn to be the new Harris County Auditor. He would remain in this position for 41 years until his death in 1954.
Born in 1882 in Columbus, Texas, Harry Lee Washburn grew up in Eagle Pass, where his mother was the Postmistress, and his father worked for the railroad. He attended the University of Texas for 3 years but had to leave after his father became ill and ran out of money. In 1902 he began work on the railroad in Mexico and in 1904 moved to Houston. Washburn’s first job was with the county clerk’s office. He soon was made chief deputy and then clerk of the Commissioners Court. He applied for the Auditor’s job in 1905 but was rejected. For the next 8 years, he studied accounting. He also read law with A. E. Amerman, E. H. Vasmer, and Blake Dupree – all well-respected lawyers and political figures. In addition to studying for his chosen career, Washburn observed the political system and learned to make himself useful. During the construction of the courthouse, Washburn was a “citizen” representative, put there by Commissioners Court.
What did Harry Washburn do when he became the Auditor?
In 1912, expenses were $700,000, exceeding revenue by $300,000. The first thing he did was type up a budget for $400,000 and make the commissioners stick to it.
By 1915, the county was out of debt and on a cash basis.
He set up professional accounting procedures.
He enforced existing laws and worked actively with the legislature to improve the financial situation in the counties.
He pioneered fee litigation beginning in 1913 and 1914 with his investigations of Constable John Boone and Justice of the Peace W. T. MacDonald. He eventually brought 25 suits against officeholders, losing only 3.
To enforce existing laws, Washburn kept extensive files of opinions - approximately 11 cubic feet of them – currently in the archives. From an opinion written by the county attorney concerning the payment of damages in 1914:
"...This is to advise you that the telephone company is not entitled to recover damages against the county by reason of the negligent acts of the men employed on the county road, in fall a tree across the line of the telephone company. It is a well settled principal [sic] of law that the county is not liable for the negligent acts of its servants or officers.
"You are also advised that the county is not liable for damaged done to the buggy of the party mentioned by you, occasioned by the negligent acts of the driver of one of the county teams, permitting same to run away and to destroying a wheel on said buggy."
For a long time, the county was not allowed to buy vehicles for the use of county employees or elected officials. This 1925 letter to Lucy Fuller, county librarian, reiterates that the county will not buy them a vehicle, only reimburse the librarians for their expenses.
By 1926 this must have changed because the county purchased a four-door Essex Coach for the librarian’s use. It’s the first car they had with a top.
Washburn often took on other jobs and duties. He became the auditor of the county’s Drainage Districts – for an additional fee. He was also extremely interested in the Navigation District and became the auditor for their books.
This photograph was taken when the City of Houston assigned its property on the ship channel to the Navigation District. Washburn is in attendance along with the county judge, mayor of Houston and other dignitaries.
When after the 1935 Flood, the County Commissioners were forced to deal with flood control, Washburn was put in charge of the entire project. Not only did he direct the citizen’s committee, but he also had an engineer personally assigned to him and he audited the books for a fee.
Washburn’s imprimatur is everywhere in these records. In the audits of the school district, he pasted in the front of every volume an explanation of why the books were in such disarray until he could get the legislation changed:
“The auditor’s office . . . Has no authority to counter sign school vouchers prior to their payment, can not insist upon their being presented to this office prior to their payment, and cannot control the fund upon which the same are issued. . . . I make this explanation in defense of the assistants who have kept this book and who have been unable to prevent the changes and alterations which appear up on the same.”
The Auditor’s Reports that were produced by Washburn are truly wonderful. The Archives does not have a complete set of the published reports, but we do have the mock-ups and information for many of them.
And as was typical of the times, the Auditor’s Reports were written with a great deal of “boosterism.” The center page from the 1923 – 1924 report shows the activities in the Navigation District and Ship Channel.
From the 1924 report, the article on rural schools includes a photograph of a grammar school in Crosby and a school bus.
Although Washburn always emphasized for the press how he saved the county money, he did not merely approve or disapprove spending. Washburn was used by the court to do the jobs they didn’t want to do. When Commissioners Court was at odds with the county librarian over budget cuts in 1933, the Court transferred control over her budget to Washburn.
Washburn established a competitive purchasing system, championed the expansion of port facilities, consolidated the drainage districts into the flood control district, oversaw the construction of the tunnel in Pasadena, and pushed for hospitalization, life, and accident insurance for county employees.
Washburn changed the county employees' work week to 40 hours in 1947 to compete with the private industry during a labor shortage.
Although he did a good job of controlling his image in the press, Washburn was not without controversy, especially toward the end of his life. Washburn was roundly criticized for having too much power, especially by County Judge Bob Casey. His wife drove a county car, and he tried to say she only drove it on county business – to her sister’s house who worked for flood control. Washburn continued to be supported by the commissioners.
Harry Washburn went to work on Saturday, July 23, 1954. The following day, Sunday, he fell ill and was rushed to Methodist Hospital, where he died on Monday morning. On Tuesday, the day of his funeral, the county closed all departments and courts, and a 24-hour guard was posted at the door of the Auditor’s Office until a new auditor could be appointed.
It can easily be said that Harry Lee Washburn was the single most powerful man in Harris County in the first part of the 20th century. He ushered the county into the 20th century. He prepared it to deal with the enormous issues that would come about in the latter half of the century by faithfully and competently and honestly fulfilling his duties as the county auditor.
Samuel B. Bruce was appointed the Harris County Auditor on Wednesday, July 28, 1954. He had worked with Washburn since 1926. Starting in 1942, he had been the head of the general accounting department.
Samuel Bruce was born in 1902 in Taylor’s Valley, Bell County, Texas. His father was a farmer, and the family frequently moved while Bruce was young – back and forth between New Mexico and Texas until returning to Bell County, where Bruce graduated from high school. In 1919 the family moved to Houston, and Bruce began to work for Republic Supply Company. In 1926 he answered an advertisement for a clerk in the Auditor’s Department and turned the job down when Washburn would only hire him temporarily to test him out. Washburn relented and brought him on full time.
With the encouragement of Washburn, Bruce took night courses in accounting at the Old Central High School. In 1948 he passed his CPA exam.
Samuel Bruce was unassuming compared to his boss. Washburn apparently acted as an agent for the county bond sales and in the years from 1944 – 1948 collected a fee for the performance of the work. County Attorney Burke Holman in a written opinion to Commissioners Court claimed that he was illegally practicing law in selling the bond issues for the county. Bruce’s response was he did not want to handle the bonds, so it became a moot point. Bruce also immediately asked for an audit of the department. Other than those small changes, the Auditor’s Office remained the same.
Compare slide 19, with Washburn and his bulging scrapbook, to Bruce’s caption on this biographical article. His sister-in-law gave him a scrapbook when he became Auditor and it was unopened. Bruce had no desire to court the press the way Washburn had.
Except for this rather long article on Bruce, which was published only a month after he was appointed Auditor, few newspaper entries exist other than a short paragraph or sentence in an article with his comments about available funding.
Samuel Bruce was a bachelor, a private man who lived in the Sam Houston hotel and walked the block to work. He continued the professionalism of the office established by Washburn and, at the end of 1968, announced that he would retire at the end of March 1969.
C. Grady Fullerton graduated from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and received his MBA from the University of Alabama. He was the first Harris County Auditor with a professional college degree. He also was a CPA in Texas and Alabama and took coursework in law school.
Fullerton came into the job with professional experience in both private and government fields. He was the director of Finance and City Treasurer of Birmingham from 1957 – 1963, the financial head of Alabama Baptist Hospital from 1963 – 1965, and then the City of Houston director of the Department of Revenue Control.
When the District Judges appointed Fullerton, they said, “Fullerton was nationally recognized as an expert in the field of government auditing and was one of three county auditors in the US chosen to serve on an advisory committee to update the standard reference work on principles of local government accounting.”
Fullerton began to work for the county in January 1969 to ensure a smooth transition when he took over as the county Auditor in April.
So, what happened? The judges appointed a well-qualified professional man. For 11 years, he ran the office, but never without controversy. Where someone like Washburn could control and run the county by the force of his personality and competence, Fullerton came in on the heels of Samuel Bruce – a quiet, mild-mannered person who provided the information the court asked for (not to say they ran over him). Fullerton did the job of an auditor as defined by his interpretation of the statues, and he made enemies.
Specifically, County Judge Jon Lindsay and Commissioner Tom Bass worked to have his appointment denied by the District Judges. Among the points of annoyance was Fullerton’s refusal to give up his own computer system. Although the courts upheld him (that the Commissioners Court could not refuse to pay the auditor’s expenses once they had been approved by the district judges), the $368,000 bill rubbed the commissioners the wrong way. In addition, Fullerton was holding up payment for the housing authority’s home renovation project and the county would likely lose the grant money - $500,000. Fullerton was probably “right” on every point, but he was not political, and the district judges refused to reappoint him in November 1980. He worked until May of 1981 when Joe Flack took over as county auditor.
A quote in the Chronicle soon after Flack began work is probably apt here:
“Flack can expect to be begged, bullied and sweet talked by members of Commissioners Court who have no authority over him, whispered to and nudged by the county’s 48 state district judges who appointed him, yapped at by countless county department heads and employees who need his OK for spending tax dollars and harassed by taxpayers who yield their taxes slowly and reluctantly, and by private contractors, who work for the county and can’t get their money fast enough.”
A direct result of the controversy with Fullerton was that legislation was introduced and passed in 1981 specifically for Harris County that took the preparation of the budget out of the hands of the auditor and put it into the then office of the Commissioners Court Coordinator. The transition to the Office of Management and Budget took several years, but the Auditor was no longer responsible for transmitting the budget to Commissioners Court.
It’s ironic, Harry Washburn’s first act was to prepare a budget.