Denver Auditor’s Race: Timothy O’Brien seeks a third and final term but faces a challenge from fellow auditor Erik Clarke

It’s competitive this time.
7 min. read
A frame of Denver’s auditors on the wall in the Wellington Webb Municipal Building, Sept. 3, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Timothy O'Brien is seeking a third and final term as Denver Auditor, and this election won't be nearly as easy.

In 2019, O'Brien ran unopposed, but this time a challenger, Erik Clarke, jumped into the race early. He's raised a lot of  money, and nabbed some key endorsements.

Unlike at the state level, the Denver auditor is an independently elected position. They serve as the watchdog over billions of dollars in agency budgets and programs, everything from the inner workings of the police department to the airport to the mayor's office.

In his eight years as Denver auditor, O'Brien has flexed the independence of the office. 

There have been critical audits of Denver Police Department's data-driven policing program, the city's insufficient affordable housing preservation, a lack of transparency during construction of the National Western Center, and inaccurate marijuana tax collections to name a few.

He's proud of the office's work around wage theft. Denver Labor is a division of the Auditor's office that works to make sure workers are paid their rightful wages, recovering millions of dollars in wages.

Denver City Auditor Timothy M. O'Brien speaks to a reporter in his office, April 3, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

O'Brien is a CPA, has been an auditor for more than 40 years, and has held the State of Colorado's top auditing position in the past as well.

"I do believe in accountability and transparency for the use of our tax dollars," O'Brien said. "And I do believe in the work we do around Denver Labor, assuring that people that have earned money, get the money that they're entitled to by law. I enjoy making the community a better place to live. And I love Denver."

But he faces one of the toughest challenges of his long career.

Erik Clarke, an auditor who works in private practice, with Deloitte US and Crowe LLP, was one of the very first candidates for any municipal office to file paperwork to run, back in April of last year.

He's running for auditor because he feels O'Brien isn't aggressive enough.

"Frankly, things are not going well in the office," Clarke said. "We saw a easy example of the airport Great Hall project, a billion dollars over budget, a decade of delays. The oversight came four years after the groundbreaking ceremony, so it was four years too late. And that's not, that doesn't inspire trust, it raises concerns about negligence."

Denver auditor candidate Erik Clarke stands near the intersection of Zuni Street and Speer Boulevard. Feb. 14, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Clarke, a political newcomer, has raised a significant amount of money, more than $141,775, including Fair Elections Fund payments, and contributions from former mayoral candidate Jamie Giellis, top lobbyist Roger Sherman, and former State House Speaker Mark Ferrandino. While O'Brien has raised only $2,662, though O'Brien said that number will be much larger in the next campaign finance report.

And he secured a key endorsement from former Denver mayor and Denver auditor, Wellington Webb.

"Erik is a professional auditor who has done hundreds of audits countrywide and worldwide, including financial and performance audits," Webb wrote in a statement announcing his endorsement. "I served as Denver's Auditor from 1987-1991 and I know that the job needs someone like Erik who will independently make sure our city is running efficiently."

O'Brien immediately questioned the number of audits his challenger has purported to have done. 

"He says he's conducted hundreds of audits," O'Brien said. "In fact, the one number I've seen is 650 audits. Well, say he's been doing this for 10 years and he hasn't. That's 65 audits a year. That's more than one a week. That's not possible."

Clarke clarified: "I've worked on hundreds of audits, including financial peer reviews, which have a much shorter timeframe on them."

"I've directly managed several dozen in total, ranging from private corporations to government entities, nonprofits, and in IT space, construction, just programmatic audits, so pretty wide across the board. I've also managed, um, two IPOs for technology companies."

If Clarke got in the race early, O'Brien got in late. Kind of.

While O'Brien filed the initial paperwork to run for auditor not long after Clarke, his campaign never really got started in 2022.

Instead, an audit executive in O'Brien's office, Jeffrey Garcia, filed paperwork to run for auditor in November 2022, fueling rumors that O'Brien was running for mayor or retiring.

"I understand that," O'Brien said. "And I encouraged Jeff to get into the race. I would then have had a qualified candidate to run against."

Garcia eventually dropped out of the race.

O'Brien said he considered a run for mayor last year. "I did have people tell me that I should run for mayor. I think my chances would've been good. I chose not to run for mayor and to continue to do the work as auditor."

But O'Brien said Clarke was going around telling people that he wasn't running for auditor, and O'Brien said he confronted Clarke about it recently. "It feels like to me that he is running a misinformation campaign," O'Brien said.

Clarke admitted that he was saying that to people, but only because it looked like O'Brien was not running.

"So I mentioned to folks," Clarke said. "That 'it looks like O'Brien's not running because his deputy jumped in.' But when Jeff didn't turn in petitions before the deadline then I, of course, never said that again."

At a debate last month, the candidates engaged on more substantive issues. 

First, their top priorities: O'Brien said the main focus should be on recovering wages for workers, not just from city employees or contractors, but also enforcing the city's minimum wage requirements.

O'Brien has also mentioned the need to have extensive information available to the next mayor. There will be a new administration this summer, and O'Brien wants to provide briefings, with every audit for each agency in the city, and what the outstanding issues are.

Clarke, at the same debate, said he believes that the city-initiated construction projects are a "huge risk," pointing to the airport Great Hall debacle. He wants to be more aggressive in examining those projects early on.

"It is a best practice to start those engagements at the very beginning stage, at the contracting stage, to uncover some of those early warning signs, and to prevent some of the snowballing and change orders that end up increasing costs," Clarke said.

Looking forward to the biggest financial challenges facing the city in the next term, O'Brien said federal pandemic-era relief money will soon be running out, and at the same time voters passed Proposition 123, directing income taxes to affordable housing. "Which will provide hundreds of millions of dollars to local government for housing, and Denver really needs to have the organizational infrastructure in place to accept those dollars, to deploy those dollars and to be accountable for those dollars," O'Brien said.

Clarke in his response, continued to focus on construction risks.

"It's not just the oversight and ensuring that there's legal compliance and good financial practices," Clarke said. "but also performance, are these dollars spent effectively or not? How much bang for your buck as taxpayers are you getting? So housing piece is gonna be huge."

The race is setting up as an interesting one. There is no public polling to guide how voters feel. The money and Webb's endorsement are behind Erik Clarke. The Denver Post editorial board, meanwhile, endorsed O'Brien -- his incumbency and experience could be enough to net him a third term.

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