The state auditor’s office is in a very different place than four years ago, when the independent agency needed to regain credibility as a vigorous watchdog. That’s a credit to auditor Pat McCarthy, who successfully rebuilt stability after the turmoil surrounding her predecessor’s criminal case. 

While McCarthy is the clear choice to be reelected this fall, she needs to do more to fully reinvigorate the office, which has a powerful good-governance duty, and has the authority to wield it.

McCarthy, a Democrat from Tacoma, is a veteran government leader. She previously served as Pierce County’s executive and auditor and a member of the Tacoma School Board. This deep experience served her well in her first term in state office. 

Predecessor Troy X. Kelley left behind an agency wracked by dysfunction and diminished funding as he refused calls to resign while battling federal theft and fraud charges. McCarthy showed an apt hand for restoring functional bureaucracy. 

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Under her watch, the agency began resolving the longstanding problem of keeping public books consistently inspected. In one long-unexamined district, a King County drainage commissioner allegedly siphoned more than $400,000 in public money between 2012 and 2019, as documented in McCarthy’s audit following news reports. The ensuing criminal charges remain pending. McCarthy followed the discovery by helping push legislative reforms that will justly penalize “unauditable” taxing districts statewide.

McCarthy has not shown the same verve in unearthing bad actors that Washingtonians benefitted from under Brian Sonntag, the state auditor for 20 years preceding Kelley. Part of this restraint can be excused; the agency needed to focus resources on internal repair. And part of it is that McCarthy’s long public-service career is a two-edged sword. She knows government operations better than most, but her extensive résumé forces recusals from important work, including a June performance audit of Sound Transit — she previously served as chair of the agency’s board. Her family’s longstanding hold on South Sound government includes her husband’s time on the Port of Tacoma Commission and her son’s current seat on the Tacoma City Council, both entities that deserve thorough, consistent examination. 

In an age where the steady erosion of local journalism means less sunlight on how public money is being spent — and misspent — Washington needs a dynamic auditor to fight for good governance. Strong findings need to be delivered, urgently, from ongoing audits of the scandal-tinged Department of Fish and Wildlife, and of rampant unemployment-claims fraud at the Employment Security Department, to name just two agencies.

McCarthy has earned reelection. Her opponent, Republican Chris Leyba, declined to be interviewed.