OLYMPIA — The race for Washington state auditor has escalated into the most hostile campaign of the year.
With the departure of longtime auditor Brian Sonntag, the two candidates seeking to replace him have focused on whether the other is fit to serve, not on their goals for the office.
Republican candidate James Watkins repeatedly points to allegations faced by Democrat Troy Kelley in past lawsuits. Kelley, in turn, has questioned whether Watkins is qualified to do the work needed in the job.
Regarding the issues, Watkins said he'd like to work closely to align department priorities with the next governor to improve government efficiency, and with local governments to help improve those operations.
He wants more emphasis placed on performance audits that can produce results more quickly and intends to work with financial managers to help them look for signs of potential fraud.
“The overall goal is to make state government more effective, more efficient, more accountable,” Watkins said.
Kelley declined interview requests from The Associated Press. In a recent debate, he described how he would look at best practices from other states and make recommendations to the Legislature on what might be done to improve large programs, such as preventing fraud in the food stamps program.
He also said performance audits must examine information security because of recent cases in which government systems have been hacked.
“Are our systems safe?” he said at the Association of Washington Business debate.
Kelley has denied allegations in what he called a nuisance lawsuit that accused him of misappropriating customer funds, fraudulently transferring funds, tax evasion and lying. Kelley paid an undisclosed amount to settle the suit.
As part of another lawsuit, in which Kelley sued for wrongful termination and defamation, his former employer accused him of stealing a painting from the office. Kelley was never charged, denied the theft and said he was paid in a settlement.
In his voter's guide, Kelley lists himself as a past president of a Fortune 500 company. He later said he was not president of the entire First American company but served as president of two of its divisions.
Kelley, meanwhile, has tried to turn the tables on Watkins, who has claimed in the voter's guide that he has done more than 150 performance audits. Kelley noted that the auditor's office hasn't even done that many.
Watkins said the performance audits he's done go by different names and procedures in the private sector. But he said the work as a business consultant focuses on ways to improve performance and efficiencies.
He declined to provide names of his clients, citing non-disclosure agreements and fears that Kelley would attack the firms.
Both Kelley and Watkins have a range of experience in the private and public sectors. Watkins unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2010. Kelley was first elected to the state Legislature in 2006.
Watkins won the August primary with 46 percent of the vote. The remaining votes were split among three Democrats, with Kelley narrowly beating state Sen. Craig Pridemore.
Kelley and Watkins have both praised current auditor Sonntag, who had won re-elections by wide margins but decided to step down because he said it was simply time to do so. Sonntag hasn't endorsed either candidate.