See more of the story

Minnesota government’s watchdog-in-chief, Jim Nobles, questions authority — no matter who it is.

Nobles once put a state attorney general under oath in an investigation, an awkward spot for the state’s chief law enforcement official. Then there was the time a former governor bluntly informed Nobles that he’d put him through hell and tarnished his legacy.

Leading frequent deep dives into the use and misuse of taxpayer money, Nobles has embarrassed several generations of top state political leaders, highlighted indiscretions that drove a University of Minnesota president from office and led to the shuttering of more than a few once-celebrated public ventures.

Nobles has held the humble-sounding but broadly powerful post of legislative auditor since 1984. He may be the most influential person in Minnesota government whose name you don’t remember or didn’t know in the first place. Now he’s turned his investigative lens on the politically connected Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, promising a report by mid-January on its controversial control of two prime luxury suites at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“The Legislature appropriates a lot of taxpayer money, and they need someone to go out and dig pretty deep into what’s going on with that money,” Nobles said in an interview in his modest office on the State Capitol campus.

Legislators order up many audits, but Nobles has authority to initiate his own. Frequently, he finds targets in the day’s news. He delved into the luxury suites after first reading about it in the Star Tribune, he said.

That instinct has led to whispers in political circles that media attention motivates Nobles.

“He loves the headlines,” said former Attorney General Mike Hatch, a DFLer who sparred often with Nobles during his own long government career, including the time Nobles deposed him under oath during his probe into a bitter dispute between Hatch and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican. “He’s very conscious of the media. He likes to take the hot matter and push it. Of course, that’s a lot of people in government.”

Nobles acknowledged what he called a “symbiotic relationship” with journalists, but disputed it’s what drives him. He noted he never holds news conferences or issues news releases.

“What brings us into the media are reports and issues that involve high-level elected officials like the former attorney general. It gets high-profile. It gets controversial,” Nobles said. It also explains his own relative anonymity despite frequent news-making audits: The focus is always on a more high-profile person’s misdeeds or a state program’s troubles, rather than Nobles himself.

Nobles leads a team of 60 financial and performance auditors, all with advanced degrees. Nobles earns a little more than $130,000 a year. His deputy auditors said he’s a likable boss who probably works harder than anyone else in the office. He writes the most high-profile reports himself.

“It is hard to sometimes match the degree of commitment and integrity that he brings,” said Deputy Auditor Cecile Ferkul. “He said to me the other day, as we’re getting into more and more things that are going to hit the news — I’m not sure he wasn’t serious — he asked, ‘Are you working on Christmas?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not planning to work on Christmas.’ ”

In legislative hearings, Nobles is all business, with an understated but intense style and a severe countenance. He said he votes, but refused to discuss his politics.

This intensity seems to extend to his private life: Asked what he does for fun, Nobles, 69, recounts how he broke both his legs — on separate occasions — while working in his St. Paul backyard.

“I do heavy, heavy duty landscaping,” Nobles, who is married and has three children and three grandchildren, said with a dry laugh. “It keeps me physically fit and gives me a psychological break.”

An Arkansas native, Nobles nonetheless has deep Minnesota roots. His great-great-grandfather was William H. Nobles, who served in Minnesota’s territorial legislature, fought in the Civil War and is namesake of southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County.

Nobles has worked for the Legislature his entire professional life, starting as an intern in 1972. Over 32 years as legislative auditor, Nobles and his team have dug into hundreds of state agencies and programs and busted many state employees for embezzlement.

Nobles confirmed in 1988 that Kenneth Keller, then president of the U, and his wife had personally ordered unbudgeted improvements to Eastcliff, the school’s presidential mansion. Keller stepped down five days after Nobles issued his report.

Nobles investigated former Gov. Arne Carlson in 1993 after a Star Tribune report alleged he improperly intervened in a case several years earlier while he was elected state auditor. That post is less powerful than the legislative auditor, mainly responsible for local government audits.

Although Nobles cleared Carlson of wrongdoing, it led to the confrontation in which Nobles recalls Carlson telling him, “You put me through hell and put a cloud over my reputation.” Carlson doesn’t remember saying that. He called Nobles honest and ethical, but he is concerned future legislative auditors could fall prey to the creeping politicization of nearly every function of government.

“I’d like to see the legislative auditor more independent of the Legislature itself, and to be able to actually audit the Legislature, too,” Carlson said.

Nobles criticized then-Gov. Jesse Ventura for bringing his state security detail on private moneymaking ventures (“He’s a big guy,” Nobles said, remembering a tense in-person meeting).

He battered a rural economic development initiative that was one of Pawlenty’s signature achievements, calling it ineffective. He rapped Gov. Mark Dayton for traveling to political events on a state plane.

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program remains under legal stress from a federal judge after a legislative audit found it holds offenders indefinitely with little chance for release.

The U suspended psychiatric drug trials after Nobles’ team spotlighted ethical lapses. The health insurance marketplace MNsure has been subject to several very harsh audits of its troubled rollout and operations.

On Jan. 26, 2004, Nobles and several colleagues met for several hours with George Andersen, then director of the Minnesota Lottery, at Andersen’s home in Hugo. They reviewed a forthcoming audit with critical findings related to administrative expenses at the Lottery.

Andersen grew more anxious as the meeting went on, Nobles recalls. When the meeting ended, Andersen went outside to smoke and Nobles stayed to chat. “I remember saying to him, ‘George, a lot of people like you, respect you, you have a lot of credibility, and I think you’ll get through this,” Nobles said.

The next morning, Nobles got a phone call. Andersen had been found dead outside his home of a self-inflicted knife wound.

“I was just floored, shocked,” Nobles said. “It was horrible. Horrible.”

Nobles had known Andersen for years. “He was bigger than life, a great guy in so many ways, and being lottery director meant so much to him,” Nobles said.

Eventually, Nobles released his audit. He said he never pursued more details about the circumstances of Andersen’s death. “I never wanted to invade the privacy of the family,” he said.

Nobles asked himself, “Should I show up at the funeral?” He decided not to.

Patrick Condon • 651-925-5049