When John Kemper tells Kentuckians he wants to be their next state auditor, some of them flinch or look for the nearest exit. At first, Kemper said, he wondered why. Then he realized they didn't understand what the auditor does.
"They think I'm going to be auditing them," Kemper said last week, chuckling. "I tell them, 'No, that's somebody else. That's the IRS.' "
In Kentucky, the state auditor is elected to monitor how public money is spent and how public agencies function. The current auditor, Democrat Crit Luallen, is finishing her second and final term, having exposed millions of dollars in government waste that led to felony convictions.
Kemper, a Republican, faces Democrat Adam Edelen in the Nov. 8 election to replace Luallen. They will appear together at 8 p.m. Monday on KET.
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Both men say a strong auditor is a crucial check on government corruption. They say they would fight for greater transparency, such as posting more public-spending records online. They also want more scrutiny of government work that is outsourced to private companies, some of which have refused to share their financial records with Luallen.
"The next generation of public auditing has to address what happens when you have private entities doing public work. We've just scratched the surface with this," Edelen said last week.
However, each candidate faces questions about his qualifications.
Kemper, 47, is in personal bankruptcy after the failure of his home-construction business in Lexington. He said he takes responsibility for his mistakes and he's obeying a debt-repayment schedule administered by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, which court records confirm.
"I'm living under the thumb of the federal government for five years," Kemper said.
Edelen, 36, is the former chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. If Beshear is re-elected Nov. 8 to a second term, as polls suggest is likely, Edelen, if elected auditor, would be the watchdog in charge of looking for problems within the Beshear administration.
Edelen also has business, social and political relationships with Frankfort lobbyists, state contractors and others with a financial stake in state government. They're among the donors who've given about $750,000 to Edelen's campaign. Kemper, by contrast, raised about $30,000 as of the last reporting period.
For example, in 2009, while Edelen was Beshear's chief of staff, the Herald-Leader reported that he, lobbyist Bob Babbage and Ralph Coldiron of Lexington were partners in a real estate business. Babbage failed to disclose that as required to state ethics officials.
Coldiron told Edelen in an email, "I need to keep cash coming in the door." The governor gave Coldiron an $80,000-a-year political appointment at the state Office of Homeland Security. He got a $20,000 raise, in violation of state pay procedure, after complaining that he needed more.
Emails showed that Edelen was meeting at the Capitol with Babbage and his lobbying clients to discuss state business while the two men did business together privately.
After the Herald-Leader reported on these developments, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission opened a preliminary investigation. Two months later, the panel dropped it with a letter advising Edelen to be mindful of "possible conflict of interest."
Republicans say Edelen is a Frankfort insider who would lack the courage to ask tough questions about spending.
"Should Steve Beshear be elected governor and should Adam Edelen be elected auditor, it absolutely would be a case of the fox watching the hen house," said Steve Robertson, chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party.
Edelen said his friendships in Frankfort would not influence how he acted as auditor.
"The only people I'd work for are the people of Kentucky," Edelen said. "Crit's been the gold standard in that office, obviously, and I should point out that I have her strong endorsement."
In his campaign, Edelen proposes an online "taxpayers' dashboard" so the public can track the performance of dozens of government agencies and services, including education, health care and economic development. Part of the auditor's job involves "performance audits" to determine how well an agency functions or services are delivered. Luallen has complained that these audits sometimes raise serious concerns but are ignored.
Additionally, Edelen said he would urge the General Assembly to pass a law making obstructing an audit illegal.
In the other corner, Kemper said he would explore government's overlooked nooks and crannies. One of those, he said, is the state's bonded debt, which has grown by billions of dollars in recent years and costs a fortune over the long term to finance. Another potential target are the local taxing districts that raise money to pay for specific services in communities, such as sewers and libraries, he said.
"We're setting these up," Kemper said, "but I don't know that anyone is looking at them closely."