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March 7, 2021

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In Our View: Transparency vital with employment issues

The Columbian
Published:

W

ashington taxpayers have a right to demand and expect a transparent accounting of how the state’s Employment Security Department was bilked out of more than $500 million.

Instead, according to State Auditor Pat McCarthy, department officials have made such transparency difficult. The public deserves better from a beleaguered agency that has faced scrutiny throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Early in the pandemic, the department revealed that, by its count, $576 million had been paid to fraudulent unemployment claims — mostly filed through an international ring of scammers. Much of that money came from federal funds, and state officials report that more than $350 million has been recovered with help from federal officials.

The fraud, along with delays in processing legitimate claims for Washington residents, led the auditor’s office to launch a series of investigations. According to Article III, Section 20, of the state Constitution, “The auditor shall be auditor of public accounts, and shall have such powers and perform such duties in connection therewith as may be prescribed by law.”

In other words, the auditor plays a vital role in efficient and accountable government. But according to an Oct. 20 letter from McCarthy to the Employment Security Department, which was obtained by The Seattle Times through a public records request, that department has withheld documents for months and has limited access to department personnel.

McCarthy warned that unless the employment division demonstrated more cooperation, she would report that “management interference” prevented a thorough audit — described by The Seattle Times as “a rare and damning conclusion.”

From the start of the pandemic, when businesses shut down and the employment department was hit with an unprecedented number of claims, ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine has argued that mistakes were caused by the overwhelming amount of work for her department.

While that is applicable to the vetting and processing of millions of unemployment claims, it is not acceptable when it comes to basic government transparency. Instead of welcoming auditors in an attempt to improve her department, LeVine drafted a four-page list of protocols designed to dictate the terms of the audits.

Such examinations must remain clear, thorough and independent. It is the role of the auditor’s office as an outside agency to determine how best to serve the taxpayers and their need to know how money is being spent.

“I understand that they have had a tsunami of challenges with regard to the number of unemployment claims,” said McCarthy, a Democrat who last month won reelection to a second term. “But right now it is critically important … that we are able to complete this work.”

LeVine, a top national Democratic Party fundraiser, ambassador and former Microsoft executive, was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to head the department in 2018. If she is unable to quickly gain control of her department’s duties and perform them in a transparent manner for the benefit of the public, Inslee should find somebody who can.

While the pandemic and stress upon the unemployment insurance system is continuing, it is essential that members of the auditor’s office be allowed to do their jobs. Fixing the problems and protecting against future theft cannot wait until the pandemic has subsided. Restoring the trust of the public must be a primary focus of the department.

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