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Originally published Sunday, October 14, 2012 at 4:01 PM

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In blistering campaign for auditor, Troy Kelley has the edge

The tactics used in the campaign to replace popular state auditor Brian Sonntag indicate neither candidate is up to the task of rooting out waste and fraud.

Seattle Times Editorial

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There is no clear choice in the race to replace Brian Sonntag as the next auditor of Washington. Given a disappointing choice between two flawed candidates, Troy Kelley is a better fit for the job.

Sonntag leaves his post after a 20-year record of bringing respect, integrity and effectiveness to an office that is charged with ensuring tax dollars are spent appropriately. The next auditor must continue to operate under the principles of open government, with the ability to nurture and maintain the public’s trust.

Judging by the campaign in recent weeks — neither Kelley nor his opponent, Republican James Watkins, are up to the task of filling Sonntag’s giant shoes.

Much has changed since The Times editorial board named Kelley and Watkins in July as the clear-cut standouts in a crowded primary field. What followed was a series of mudslinging distortions brought on by Watkins’ campaign against the Democrat. Kelley, an attorney, failed to defend himself against the attacks.

In the end, the tone of Watkins’ accusations is what tipped the scales in Kelley’s favor. Watkins, a business consultant, has experience with performance reviews in the private sector. But his campaign’s mean-spirited tactics raise concerns about how he would run an office that handles and analyzes sensitive information about public agencies.

Consider the following:

Watkins created the website factchecktroykelley.com, in which he posts court documents that accuse Kelley of misappropriating funds, evading taxes, laundering money, and even stealing. None of these claims are substantiated. Watkins, who ran unsuccessfully against Jay Inslee in 2010 and ran an eerily similar site at the time called factcheckjayinslee.com, has tried to frame himself as the innocent finder of these lawsuits. But on Watkins’ website, the campaign posts that Kelley’s “shady dealings were exposed by the media.”

Voters should be cautious about the files posted on the website. Legal documents are rife with hyperbole. Furthermore, it is disturbing that Watkins’ campaign has tried to build a case against his opponent by irresponsibly publishing words like “rumor” to proclaim that Kelley is “unfit to serve in ANY position of public trust.” Watkins has also inaccurately accused Kelley of lying about a previous corporate post, which Kelley quickly disputed by producing his business cards and an annual report.

Kelley does not deny his involvement in these past legal issues. He claims they are “nuisance” suits and that his firm got swept up in many lawsuits spurred by the mortgage industry’s troubles. The fact is he has never been charged with or convicted of committing a crime; these suits never went to trial; some settled out of court. Not lost upon us is the fact they involve Kelley’s personal business, not his public record as a state legislator since 2006.

Kelley’s refusal to make public the details of a 2011 settlement with a former client, Old Republic Title, is disappointing. More alarming, though, is the lack of fairness and disregard for context displayed in Watkins’ statements toward his opponent. If he’s going to attack Kelley, why not comment on his record as past chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Review or as the vice chair of the House Business & Financial Services committees?

Kelley’s resume includes a stint as an audit team leader with the Securities and Exchange Commission. His experience in the Legislature — and service as a JAG lieutenant colonel in the National Guard — indicate that he will bring a broader understanding of how public audits work, what they can do, and how to cooperate with the Legislature to implement changes.

Whoever wins this race will be starting at a deficit in establishing trust with the agency’s employees and the public — unfortunate considering the years it took for Sonntag to shield the agency from partisan bickering.

When Sonntag, a Democrat, recently appeared at the Republican state convention, he received a standing ovation. That’s what integrity looks like.

This blistering campaign is inadequate to judge the two candidates vying to replace him. Troy Kelley has the edge because a bipartisan pool of colleagues who’ve worked with him in Olympia bypassed Watkins’ assertions and attested to his character. Kelley’s record indicates he is more likely to uphold Sonntag’s evenhanded approach.

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