Too soon to pull the plug on state auditor

By Knute Berger
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A move to impeach indicted State Auditor Troy Kelley is underway in Olympia, but legislative leaders say lawmakers have more pressing problems to tackle.

By Knute Berger

State Auditor Troy Kelley, a Democrat, is under federal investigation, as is a key aide, Jason Jerue, who works from his home in California. Kelley says he has no idea why, but he's had legal problems in the past related to his financial management. Rick Anderson at Seattle Weekly has an interesting story speculating that the feds — the FBI and IRS — are likely interested in tax issues. 

The Seattle Times last week called for Kelley's resignation, and a former state legislator, "Walkin'” Will Knedlik, has filed a recall petition seeking to oust the auditor from office for "abuse" of the public trust. Gov. Jay Inslee last week demanded that Kelley tell him what is going on and whether there were any issues relating to the Auditor's Office. Kelley replied that everything there was business as usual. The professional staff goes about its business.

The question is, should the state auditor be held to a higher standard in terms of questions of integrity? The obvious answer is "yes." This is the person who is managing oversight of other public agencies, conducting performance audits and financial reviews of their work. Even if Auditor Kelley is largely a figurehead, as he has been portrayed in some media accounts, one could argue that the auditor’s sole defining qualification must be unquestioned integrity.

How else can you answer the questions his office explores -- and have your audits matter? The questions address whether our public funds are being expended properly. Are our ports, public utilities, state agencies and school districts accountable? You might remember that the public voted by initiative (I-900) in 2005 to institute performance audits — and the Auditor's Office claims the audits have saved the public about $1 billion since they were instituted.

Audits often raise important issues that are otherwise hidden from public view. In 2007, a state audit found that the Port of Seattle had wasted nearly $100 million in taxpayer money and found that the Port Commission was lax in its oversight. In 2010, a Seattle School District state audit found real problems, including misuse of $1.8 million in capital funds, over-payments to employees and violations of the state's open meetings act. These and other findings sparked public outcry, demands for reform and better stewardship, and shone daylight into the details of government management and spending.

Yes, audits can be nitpicky, but they can also reveal big problems, and lay out a roadmap for repairing public trust. The impact of the Auditor's Office has been felt statewide.

Some question whether the position of State Auditor ought to be an elective office — one could make the same arguments for offices like Insurance Commissioner or State Treasurer, which ought to have competence put ahead of partisanship. Democrats currently have a lock on state elective offices, with the exception of Secretary of State, which seems to be permanently in the hands of mainstream Republicans of high integrity.

Still, making the office appointive would not eliminate politics. Given the nature of the auditor's position and the powers that have been added by initiative, keeping it elective but making it non-partisan might be helpful — leading to election races that focus not on political ideology but independence and ability.

Kelley has not been charged with anything, and resignation and recall seem a bit premature: I think the public needs to know more. Still, if the public loses confidence in the Auditor's Office as a result of the auditor himself, the impact could be real. Will performance audits be open to question? Will the financial performance of public offices be uniformly regarded as suspect? The state can ill afford that. And let's be clear, there are many public agencies and entities and state legislators that would just as soon be rid of some of this auditing activity, which is often as pleasant for its subjects as root canal surgery.

There is no way to extract politics from the auditing process entirely. Not only are public entities or their leaders sometimes fighting for their survival, but also there are decisions that must be made in interpreting gray areas of the law.

So the process itself will never be entirely "clean." All the more reason for independence and integrity that rises above party and is rooted in honesty. All the more reason to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.