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THE state auditor recently took a disappointing pass on an allegation of state-government misconduct — a charge that the insurance commissioner’s office has been leaning on an administrative law judge to obtain favorable rulings.

Auditor Troy Kelley should reconsider. He is the state’s official watchdog, with wide-ranging powers to examine charges of government malfeasance. Kelley can either take action on the whistle-blower complaint of Judge Patricia Petersen or initiate an investigation of his own. With the former action she gets legal protection from workplace retaliation; with the latter, she doesn’t. But he certainly ought to do one or the other.

Petersen’s charge is troubling enough to warrant an independent inquiry. For 19 years, Petersen has been hearing appeals to insurance regulatory decisions. But lately, as a number of cases involving interpretation of the Affordable Care Act have crossed her desk, she claims her bosses have taken umbrage. Last month, on the eve of an important hearing in a case involving Seattle Children’s Hospital, Petersen’s supervisor delivered an “interim job evaluation” highly critical of her rulings, saying she needed to support the policies of Commissioner Mike Kreidler. He declared, “Since your orders are legally the acts of the commissioner, they must be orders that he supports.”

In a case about conflicts of interest, Kelley’s refusal to investigate makes things worse. Someone must look into her charges, so Kreidler’s office is being forced to investigate itself. Although it is hiring an outsider to determine whether lines were crossed and it will not have editorial control over the findings, the office is determining the shape and scope of the investigation through the contracting process. That doesn’t mean the investigation will be unfair, but it could leave room for doubt.

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Kelley’s reasoning in rejecting Petersen’s complaint was that she could pursue other avenues. Because her supervisor, James Odiorne, is an attorney, Petersen could complain to the courts or the Bar Association, which have enforcement powers the auditor does not. Yet this appears less a potential matter of attorney discipline than a question of how regulatory appeals are handled — exactly the sort of big-picture issue that used to energize the auditor’s office in the days of former Auditor Brian Sonntag.

Sonntag said last week that, of course, the charge should be investigated. Whistle-blowers always have other avenues of recourse, “but you don’t see something of this level come up very often.”

Kelley should step up and spare the insurance commissioner the burden of investigating his own office.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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