15 Oct Jewish Baby Strollers Reports Candidates for state auditor clash on financial oversight of Employment Security Department
Pat McCarthy and Chris Lebya have opposing viewpoints on how to conduct the state auditor’s office.
McCarthy, the Democratic incumbent who’s held the office since 2017, told The Columbian’s Editorial Board that she and her team of 400 staff have focused on reviewing the financial practices of state and local government agencies. That, she said, is what the state auditor has been required to accomplish for 130 years, and it’s vital work.
“Before the pandemic, about $113 billion that we’ve examined,” McCarthy said.
“We cannot step away from the work that we do,” she added. “We’re post auditors. That’s what we do. That’s what the statute requires.”
Lebya, her Republican challenger, said that he wants to take a more proactive approach. Under his leadership, he said, the auditor’s office would focus more on overseeing the financial systems of checks and balances at state and local agencies with the aim of preventing problems before they arise.
It reflects “a polar opposite philosophy on what we think auditors should do,” Lebya said. “I think that’s a culture shift that will happen under my leadership in this office.”
He cited the recent scandal at the Employment Security Department, when a massive unemployment fraud scheme sent up to $650 million to foreign hackers who used stolen Social Security numbers (about half of the money has since been recovered by federal law enforcement). If McCarthy’s office had been more proactive in its oversight of the ESD, Lebya said, “we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in right now.”
McCarthy said her office has launched three separate audits of the ESD, and that she’s championed legislation that gives the auditor’s office “more teeth” in enforcing the recommendations that come out of accountability audits. If a government entity has done something illegal, she added, the auditor’s office works with the attorney general.
“We do audit the ESD, and we have audited them,” McCarthy said. “We will give them the recommendations (but) they have to implement them.”
Lebya also told the editorial board that he wants to pivot the office away from full-time staff and toward contracting services from private accounting firms as a way to save money during the pandemic.
“That will also open us up to reducing our budget, if the governor ultimately decides my office needs to reduce its budget,” Lebya said. “(We can) do it in a way that doesn’t cut the overall function of the office, which is the oversight.”
McCarthy pushed back on that assertion.
“There’s not a CPA firm that charges as low as we do in the state auditor’s office,” McCarthy said, adding that there are other ways to keep the department’s expenditures down – when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she said, her office reduced a scheduled cost-of-living adjustment for its employees, held off on any non-urgent hires and pushed some performance audits out to next year.
“We do keep our staffing at a certain level to be able to accomplish the things that we are required to do,” McCarthy said.
Lebya is a felony crimes detective with the King County Sheriff’s Office. He previously worked as a detective of audits and inspections at the Seattle Police Department.
Before her election to the state position, McCarthy had formerly served as the county executive of Pierce County. She took over the auditor’s office in a tumultuous time – the previous state auditor, Troy Kelley, was convicted on felony fraud charges unrelated to his elected office.
McCarthy said she was proud of the work she undertook to stabilize the office. She’s also proud of the steps she took toward increasing public transparency, including an online searchable database of audits and a virtual tracker explaining how public funds are collected and spent. Both are accessible to the general public.
“We’ve created a really wonderful, user-friendly website for the citizens at large,” McCarthy said. “I’m seeking reelection because I want to continue this good work.”
McCarthy and Lebya will appear statewide on the Nov. 3 ballot. Voters should expect to see their ballots in their mailboxes by Oct. 21.