State Rep. Troy Kelley went on the offensive Wednesday after a week of answering questions about his business dealings, questioning political opponent James Watkins’s resume.
At an Association of Washington Business-sponsored debate in Cle Elum between the two candidates for state auditor, Tacoma Democrat Kelley parried attacks about past allegations of theft and said it “strains credibility” when Redmond Republican Watkins claims to have done 150 performance audits of businesses and governments in his career.
Kelley demanded details and said current Auditor Brian Sonntag has conducted just one-third of that total since voters in 2005 gave him the right to do performance audits of state government.
Watkins said after the debate that he’s not “performing every one individually” but leads audit teams at the consulting company where he works. He’s not allowed to divulge most clients’ names, he said.
He said the kind of audits he has led in the private sector – “assessments” or “engagements,” as he said they should be more precisely called – take as little as one to three months, less time than the ones Sonntag does examining how state programs are working. He’d like to bring that kind of “quick-hit audit” to state government, he said in the debate.
Watkins said Kelley would “try to throw up mud to try to distract from his actual, documented testimony in a series of lawsuits.”
The usually low-profile auditor’s race received attention last week when Watkins unveiled a website cataloging hundreds of pages of documents from past court cases involving Kelley, who tracks and records property-title documents for a living.
Kelley had sued a former employer, who in turn tried to prove in court that Kelley had come back to his former office one evening in 2000 to steal a painting after being dismissed. And a client had sued Kelley, saying he owed clients $3.8 million that he had hidden in a series of transfers between bank accounts in multiple states.
Kelley has no criminal record, and he says lawsuits are just a cost of doing business. He said Watkins had been ready to attack any of his possible Democratic opponents who might emerge from the August primary election, reserving addresses for critical websites.
None of the allegations against him amounted to anything, he said.
“The cases have all been dismissed. There are no judgments,” Kelley said.
His lawsuit against former employer First American Title Insurance Co. ended after Kelley says he was paid an undisclosed sum. The lawsuit against him also ended in a settlement, this time one that he paid.
He repeatedly pivoted to Watkins’ business, finally saying Watkins was refusing to give details about his clients or the topics of the 150 audits.
“I’ve had no evidence from this discussion that I can be comfortable feeling you’ve even done one,” Kelley said.
Watkins said he signed nondisclosure agreements that prevent him from discussing many of his dozens of clients. He did say he conducted audits for Microsoft while working there.
News Tribune columnist Peter Callaghan moderated the debate in front of an audience of business executives and lobbyists. Audience members also heard from the candidates for lieutenant governor and secretary of state.
Lt. Gov. Brad Owen and his challenger, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Finkbeiner, also tussled over ethics.
Owen, a Democrat, is in talks with state election regulators about his use of excess campaign funds. He didn’t report details of the spending; he said regulators originally told him wrongly he didn’t have to.
He eventually detailed the purchases, which The Associated Press reported included gifts, meals and alcohol for state staffers and visiting dignitaries. Republican Finkbeiner wants to curtail the use of what he calls “slush funds,” but Owen said it’s a reasonable alternative to using taxpayer money.
Owen also forcefully defended his international travel, which he said boosts Washington trade and is done at the expense of those who invite him, with no public funds used.
Finkbeiner said the lieutenant governor should do less globetrotting and focus on trying to promote bipartisan cooperation in the state Senate, where he is the presiding officer. Owen said he has done just that.
SECRETARY OF STATE
By contrast, Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman and former state Sen. Kathleen Drew found more to agree than disagree on. Both see current laws preventing voter fraud as sufficient, for example.
The candidates for the state’s top elections official, secretary of state, did part ways on whether to register voters on Election Day and whether to pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, effective when they turn 18.
Drew, a Democrat, supports both ideas as ways to extend access to the ballot. Wyman, a Republican, said officials are busy counting ballots on Election Day and that information collected in pre-registration would be out of date by the time it took effect.