SPOKANE — The two candidates taking on incumbent Democratic State Auditor Pat McCarthy in the Aug. 4 primary argue McCarthy did not show enough leadership once the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The other Democrat in the race, Joshua Casey, is a certified public accountant who does not think that McCarthy did enough to prevent the amount of money lost due to fraudulent attacks on the Employment Security Department. The Republican in the race, Chris Leyba, is a police officer who thinks the quality of work the state auditor's office has done in the last four years has decreased significantly from previous administrations.
The state auditor is responsible for performing a number of different types of audits in both state and local governments. These can include accountability audits, financial statement audits, cybersecurity audits and performance audits.
The position has been especially visible in Yakima County. In 2019, the Auditor's Office detailed problems in the city of Wapato under the leadership of former city officials Juan Orozco and Dora Alvarez-Roa. Two audits detailed eight findings involving nepotism policy violations, ethics violations, repeated violations of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act and financial issues.
McCarthy said the state auditor's job is retrospective in most cases. Local entities decide how to use their money, and the state auditor's office decides if they did everything correctly, she said.
As the pandemic continues, McCarthy said it is important to have the leadership skills of someone who has had the experience in the role and knows how to handle an influx of new money from the federal government.
"It's going to be more important than ever that the state auditor's office is there to make sure that there's accountability and transparency," McCarthy said.
But McCarthy's opponents think she can be doing more to be proactive and prevent such large-scale fraud as seen in the Employment Security Department.
In the beginning of the pandemic, Casey said he saw a huge opportunity for leadership in the state auditor's office, but he does not think the current auditor showed that.
For example, he said once the ESD found nearly a half-billion dollars of fraudulent claims, the state auditor should have stepped in and immediately audited the department. Instead, he said it took weeks for that audit to be announced.
"At the end of the day, you're not an appointee," Casey said. "You're not responsible to the Legislature. You're responsible to Washingtonians, and that's who you should maintain your allegiance to."
Leyba agreed that the current state auditor did not do enough once the pandemic hit. Leyba said there were signs early on that could've led to stopping the amount of fraudulent attacks had an audit been done sooner.
"The emails some of the fraudulent accounts that were applying for unemployment were ridiculous," Leyba said.
McCarthy said it is not her job to think proactively in most cases. In that way, public audits are different than private audits, she said.
As someone who worked for the biggest private accounting firms in the country, Casey said having a CPA makes him the most qualified candidate in the race. He said it's the highest standard of competence in the private sector.
The state auditor has to have the relevant experience, Casey said, and a CPA has the best of that experience.
"You wouldn't hold the public to a lower standard than you would the private sector when you're performing an audit," he said.
As a police officer, Leyba said he has 11 years of investigatory experience, which will help in the state auditor's role. He said he also worked with numerous regional, local and state teams.
McCarthy said her previous work in public service and government roles is the most important reason to vote for her. She pointed to her work to improve the state auditor's website over the last three years and to make that information more available to the public.
"It's one thing to say, 'I did this and I did that,'" she said. "You don't have to guess with me. You can look at my record."
Leyba said he does not think someone could come into the state auditor position straight from the private sector.
"I think there would be a lot of pitfalls because you have to be able to understand the politics and the bureaucracy of government," he said.
Leyba also wants to make the state auditor's office nonpartisan. Although changing the role in the state constitution would be difficult, he said it is important to keep the role free of politics.
Having a partisan label might hinder a state auditor's ability to audit the most important parts of Washington's government.
"There's no such thing as a Republican audit or a Democratic audit," he said. "It is an objective, fact-based report."
Casey said an auditor should be an independent and objective source of accountability. An auditor should not have ties to other areas of government or political parties, he added. But he said keeping the office partisan is important, as it gives voters a sense of what the candidates' values are, thought it should not affect the auditing process.
"People should feel that the perception is that you're independent and objective at the end of the day," he said.
McCarthy said she serves everyone, regardless of party affiliation, in her role as state auditor. However, she said she does stand on her Democrat principles.
Many people who run in nonpartisan races still receive donations and support from partisan organizations, McCarthy said. Running with a party affiliation allows for more accountability and transparency, she added.
The Yakima Herald-Republic contributed.