Auditor needs to come clean

This post originally appeared on the leadership blog of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, Exit 105.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

What do you do when the state’s top investigator finds himself under investigation? That’s the uncomfortable question before us this week as state Auditor Troy Kelley hunkers down in his office and addresses enormous public doubt by saying nothing at all.

Kelley has a right to remain silent, of course – as a private citizen. But as state auditor, he needs to uphold a higher standard of conduct. He can start by telling the public why the feds obtained a search warrant the other day and raided his house. Why they’ve been poking through his records as a member of the state House. Why a federal grand jury issued subpoenas for records involving one of his top deputies and his interactions with state agencies.

And once Kelley finishes explaining, he ought to absent himself from his office. He should take a leave until the investigation is done. He should allow his staff to carry on its important work of monitoring state operations, out from under the shadow that has been cast upon his office.

I might be accused of partisanship for saying these rather obvious things. Kelley is a Democrat and I am a Republican. I think the only difference between parties is that we Republicans are freer to say what everyone is thinking. Our shock reflects our assumptions about politics in this corner of the country. A federal investigation of a statewide officeholder might not even make the news in one of those east-coast states where every prison has a special wing for politicians. But in Washington we are accustomed to clean politics. The worst we normally hear about is the occasional children’s sports-team treasurer who decides he needs to augment his vacation fund. And the funny thing is that it usually is the state auditor who calls our attention to it.

That the state’s elected watchdog might come under scrutiny himself is at once appalling and yet not at all surprising. During the 2012 campaign many of us were dismayed by the story that emerged about Troy Kelley. As owner of an escrow company, he was accused of improperly keeping customers’ money. He admitted that he used a series of wire transfers to send $3.8 million to an account in Belize, where presumably it would be harder to retrieve. A civil suit was settled out of court.

What is troubling about that case is that Kelley said he couldn’t talk about the settlement in 2012 because of a confidentiality agreement. So the title company that sued him offered to waive the agreement. Kelley refused. In fact, he went to court in an attempt to seal the records in the case, arguing they might be used against him in future political races. The judge said no.

We don’t know if the two cases are connected, but we certainly see the same pattern. Kelley wouldn’t face reporters Monday. Instead he issued a press release saying he couldn’t say anything. If he did, his spokesman said Kelley might be charged with obstruction of justice – a claim that warrants an arched eyebrow. At the very least Kelley could emerge from his office and look the TV cameras in the eye and say it himself. And if he is truly worried that he might say something that would get him in trouble, he could keep a lawyer at his side to shush him.

After Kelley tells us what he can about this latest federal investigation, he should tell us that he is waiving the confidentiality agreement that has prevented disclosure of the settlement in the escrow-company case. Kelley needs to understand that the matter has not been forgotten, and now that this new federal investigation has raised further doubt, it is time for him to come clean. We in in the Legislature have every right to be concerned. The relationship between the Legislature and auditor is vital. Lawmakers request specific audits to ensure state operations are done right and that there is accountability for how public funds are spent. Transparency is the ethical foundation of the auditor’s office. We expect the auditor to be a crusader for public disclosure. His office is where it should start.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, is leader of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.