In Olympia, talk of impeaching an indicted state auditor

TACOMA — Many of the state’s elected leaders agreed Thursday: Troy Kelley must go. They included Democratic colleagues like the governor and the attorney general.

But the state auditor said Thursday he will not quit the office as he defends against a 10-count federal indictment, handed down earlier in the day, which includes charges that he stole millions of dollars from business clients and filed false tax returns.

His resolve could force legislators to force him out. Talk of impeachment was circulating at the Capitol in Olympia after the news broke. Kelley said he will go on leave May 1 but will not resign.

“I did not break the law,” Kelley said at a news conference after pleading not guilty in U.S. District Court here. “I never ever, ever thought I was breaking the law and I still do not to this day.

“Now that the U.S. attorney has made the investigation public, I am determined to fight back and clear my name.”

Kelley made a three-minute statement but took no questions. He called the charges meritless and said the government is “a long ways from proving any wrongdoing.”

“I fully intend to resume my duties,” he said. Then he walked out of the conference room at the Courtyard Marriott in downtown Tacoma.

Gov. Jay Inslee and leaders of the House and Senate hope he does not return to Olympia. “This indictment today makes it clear to me that Troy Kelley cannot continue as state auditor. He should resign immediately,” Inslee said in a statement issued within minutes of the indictment’s release by the U.S. Justice Department in Seattle.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, and Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, all made the same plea a short time later.

“I called long ago for Troy Kelley to take a leave of absence,” Schoesler said. “I’m out of patience, as I think most citizens would be, and I think he should do the honorable thing and step aside to restore trust in government.”

As word spread of the indictment and calls for Kelley to quit multiplied among lawmakers, some broached the subject of Washington’s first-ever impeachment of a statewide elected official.

Under the state constitution, the House of Representatives could start the process if a single member files a resolution for impeachment and it is passed with a majority vote. It would then go to the Senate, which would investigate the charges. It would take a two-thirds majority of senators to impeach Kelley.

It’s never happened in Washington.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said Thursday he’s asked questions about the process, but no decision has been made on whether to proceed.

“We’ll have to see what next steps” Kelley takes, Sullivan said.

Some lawmakers declined to publicly call for Kelley’s resignation.

“We still have a system where you are innocent until proven guilty, and despite whatever we’ve seen so far, it’s now in the court’s hands to deal with this,” said House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish. “Let’s make sure due process is done in this situation.”

Kelley, 50, of Tacoma, is a former federal prosecutor who targeted white collar crime and a former member of the state House of Representatives. The auditor’s job, to which voters elected him in 2012, pays $116,950 per year.

Should Kelley resign, Inslee would appoint a successor. While the governor would be under pressure to replace him with another Democrat, the state constitution doesn’t require the successor to be of the same political party, according to Dave Ammons, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office.

Whom the governor might choose could depend on when Kelley departs.

If he were to leave office before May 11, the first day of candidate filing for the November election, the position of state auditor would be on the ballot this year. If Kelley were to resign after May 11, Inslee’s appointee would serve the rest of the term, through 2016.

Brian Sonntag, who served five terms as state auditor before retiring in 2012, said Thursday he’d fill in if asked. “I’d be there the next morning,” he said. “Anything I can do to help.”

Sonntag said public trust in government is fragile by nature and more so now in light of criminal charges against the official who is supposed to be a government watchdog.

“This is a pretty heavy cloud,” he said.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson used that metaphor, too. “The sooner that cloud is lifted, the better,” he said in written statement. “That’s why I am calling upon Troy Kelley to resign as auditor immediately.”

It was unclear how long Kelley will be on leave while he fights the charges.

All was quiet Thursday morning in the auditor’s office, where the agency spokesman said he learned of the indictment from a reporter.

“Everybody is going about their business and doing their job,” Thomas Shapley said. “Nothing stops.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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