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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Transparency, disclosure best defaults to maintain trust in state auditor

Prior to 2012, Brian Sonntag was Washington state auditor for 20 years. Before that, Bob Graham held the position for 28 years.

Current Auditor Troy Kelley may not make it past his third year if he can’t explain why the public should be unconcerned about federal agents searching his home March 16.

The Tacoma News Tribune first reported the search by U.S. Treasury agents March 20. Kelley was in California on vacation.

In a subpoena dated March 5, the feds demanded “records related to a state employee and longtime business partner of Kelley’s whose name appears in an acrimonious lawsuit tied to Kelley’s past business dealings,” according to the newspaper.

This did not disrupt his vacation plans. He finally returned Monday, three days after the news broke. Since then, Kelley has remained out of public view, and has said very little. He maintains that he’s “puzzled” by the federal inquiry.

In a Friday email to office staff, Kelley said this was “a difficult and unsettling time,” according to Austin Jenkins of Northwest Network News, but seemed to suggest that he wouldn’t be resigning or stepping aside until the federal grand jury investigation is complete.

The subpoena is centered on emails between Jason Jerue, a part-time technical writer for the Auditor’s Office, and other office workers. Jerue was vice president of Kelley’s old real estate document business, which was sued by a former client, Old Republic Title. Jerue works from home in California.

The title company accused Kelley of keeping fees that should’ve been refunded to customers. The parties eventually settled, and the court records were sealed. This became an issue in the 2012 campaign, with Old Republic Title saying it would be fine with disclosure. But Kelley insisted on secrecy.

Now, apparently, the feds are pursuing the case as a criminal matter. The Seattle Times reports the feds are also looking into improper reimbursements Kelley may have received when he was a legislator.

Gov. Jay Inslee has urged Kelley to be open with the public. The Legislature is seeking an explanation. Kelley’s predecessor, Sonntag, zeroed in on why this is so troubling for an office that has earned bipartisan respect.

“Integrity, trust, independence, transparency and accountability – those are all the standards that should and do apply to that office and I think citizens expect nothing less,” he told Northwest Network News.

Kelley obviously knows more than he’s willing to divulge. But just as he did during the campaign, he’s so far chosen non-disclosure. But the office is too important to be dragged down by the past dealings of its leader and/or some of his associates.

He should head to the nearest microphone and explain how the Auditor’s Office came to be ensnared in a possible criminal matter. Barring that, he should take a leave of absence until the investigation is over. Continued silence is not an option.

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