SEATTLE – Restoring the credibility of the Washington State Auditor’s Office tops the list of priorities for those seeking to replace departing Auditor Troy Kelley, whose term was marred by his federal fraud indictment and seven-month leave of absence.
Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, state Sen. Mark Miloscia and Seattle lawyer Jeff Sprung are the leading candidates to replace Kelley. Forensic accountant Mark Wilson, of Bellevue, and engineer David Golden, of Spokane, are also running but have raised little to no money.
“Restoring the credibility and settling the office down is going to happen after the first of the year, regardless of who wins,” said former longtime state Auditor Brian Sonntag, who has endorsed Sprung. “I really think just that with the change in that officeholder, the atmosphere’s going to be different. People are going to be eager to get back to work without distractions.”
Kelley, a Democrat from Tacoma, was under federal investigation from soon after he won the auditor’s seat in 2012. Allegations of impropriety in how he ran his former real-estate services business surfaced during the campaign, prompting federal agents to take a look.
In early 2015, prosecutors made Kelley the first Washington state official indicted in 35 years. They alleged he kept $3 million he should have refunded to homeowners and that he dodged taxes. Kelley took a leave of absence, rejecting calls for his resignation from Republicans and Democrats alike, but returned to work in December. A federal jury in Tacoma this spring cleared him of one count and deadlocked on 15 others, but his lawyers said the case had ruined his political career and that he would not seek re-election.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle said it will try him again next year, when he’ll no longer be in office.
Against that backdrop, the top candidates to replace him all say restoring trust in the Auditor’s Office is crucial, though they agree that the office’s staff performed admirably under the circumstances. The auditor’s role is to root out waste and fraud by reviewing the operations, performance and financial controls of government bureaucracies large and small, and the person whose name appears on the audits needs to be above reproach, they said.
Sprung, a Democrat, is a partner at the Seattle law firm of Hagens Berman, where he has spent the past 25 years representing whistleblowers and trying to recover misspent or stolen government money. He said he has helped recover more than $750 million, most of it from drug companies and big banks, and that managing teams of lawyers and accountants assembled to investigate such complex cases gave him experience that closely tracks the work of the state auditor.
He also cites his independence: Unlike his two chief competitors, he’s a newcomer to politics. Among his aims as auditor would be stressing government transparency and pressing for greater protection of whistleblowers, he said.
Sprung has raised $275,000, more than three times what Miloscia or McCarthy have garnered. He said he wants to be auditor because he has a long-standing passion for protecting the public’s money and because he wants to give back to the country that offered his Jewish parents a chance when they left Nazi Germany; his father survived the Auschwitz concentration camp.
McCarthy, a Democrat, and Miloscia, a Democrat-turned-Republican, cite their own experience, she as a former Pierce County auditor who has administered one of the state’s largest county governments, and he as a lawmaker who has strived to instill efficiency and ethics in state operations. McCarthy has racked up endorsements from former Gov. Chris Gregoire and King County Executive Dow Constantine, Miloscia from former Attorney General Rob McKenna and former Secretary of State Sam Reed.
McCarthy said that far from jeopardizing her independence, her detailed knowledge of government’s inner workings gives her an understanding crucial in the auditor’s position.
“I don’t think someone who’s never been elected is going to hit the ground running,” she said.
Miloscia, who chairs the Senate Accountability and Reform Committee, ran for auditor as a Democrat in 2012 but lost to Kelley in the primary. He said he wants to encourage agencies to adopt management tools that help them move “from good or mediocre or horrible to great.” In his vision, the size of the Auditor’s Office would shrink because agencies would be catching problems in advance.
He vowed to evaluate how every agency handles whistleblowers.
“When you have whistleblowers, that tells you management is unethical and incompetent,” he said. “They’re punishing people instead of encouraging people to come forward so that they’re not whistleblowers.”
Wilson, a political newcomer, is running as an independent because he believes the office should be nonpartisan. He said that as an independent running a low-budget campaign, he’s received some unexpected support from disaffected Democrats who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run. He hopes to restore the sterling reputation the office had under Sonntag, he said.
The two candidates who receive the most votes in Tuesday’s primary will advance to the general election.
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