Indicted Washington state auditor returns to work

OLYMPIA — Indicted state Auditor Troy Kelley returned to work Tuesday morning, ending seven months of self-imposed exile while facing a trove of federal criminal charges.

Kelley hadn’t intended to come back until his legal fight was done but changed his mind when four state lawmakers said Monday they would try to impeach him for dereliction of duty.

“I said I would not be back until the conclusion of my legal issues. Now I am being impeached solely because I’m taking a leave of absence. That’s why I am back,” Kelley said in an interview.

Kelley, a 51-year-old Democrat, went on unpaid leave May 4 to defend himself against charges of money laundering, possession of stolen money, lying under oath and tax evasion arising from his operation of a real-estate services business from 2006 to 2008. He’s denied wrongdoing and is now scheduled to face trial in March.

Kelley, who was elected in 2012, intends to serve the final year of his term. Though he’s filed paperwork to be a candidate in 2016 he said, “Today I can’t imagine running for re-election. I won’t foreclose any options.”

On Tuesday, few imagined him walking through the doors of the state Auditor’s Office to resume his duties. Rather, for months, Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate, along with Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, have publicly called on him to resign and kept hoping he would.

“This is like a nightmare that keeps taking turns for the worse,” said Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, one of those pursuing impeachment. “I don’t think any of the legislators who signed the impeachment resolution asked him to take leave. Many of us just asked him to leave.”

A spokeswoman for Inslee called Kelley’s return “troubling” while House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen of Snohomish said he was “very disappointed.”

When Kelley took leave, it was an unprecedented action by a statewide elected official. He did so only after seeking advice from Attorney General Bob Ferguson on the legality.

At the time, he put department veteran Jan Jutte at the helm and vowed to resume his duties at the conclusion of the legal battle — presuming he wasn’t convicted.

Kelley’s mood changed Monday. That’s when Hunt and Reps. Drew MacEwen, R-Union, Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn and Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, unveiled the resolution for impeachment they intend to introduce in January when the 2016 legislative session begins.

The state Constitution allows for impeaching a state elected official for “high crimes or misdemeanors” or “malfeasance in office.” Those pushing impeachment contend Kelley committed malfeasance by leaving his office empty and installing an unelected official in his stead.

“Can I defend myself? Yes, I believe so,” Kelley said. “I’ve read the constitution. It appears some legislators have not.”

Kelley’s return may fuel, rather than derail, the impeachment effort.

“It reinforces exactly why we did it,” Reykdal said. “He can show up on Tuesday but on the Monday before he didn’t want to be around the office. The only difference is politics. If he could be here why wasn’t he here the last 7 months?”

Kristiansen said he thinks the overwhelming majority of members in the Legislature support getting someone else in the job.

“Frankly, I hope the Legislature moves forward,” he said.

If the House passes a resolution of impeachment, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he wasn’t sure if the Senate can ignore it or if it must proceed.

Right now, he said, he’s “more focused on the caucus needs and agenda then Troy Kelley’s latest escapade.”

When Kelley arrived at work, he met with the executive team to share his reasons for returning, and expressed his intention to serve out his term, said Adam Wilson, communications manager for the auditor’s office.

Jutte then briefed Kelley on what’s transpired in the office in his absence.

“She’s done a great job,” Kelley said of Jutte, who will serve as deputy state auditor and be the agency’s point person in dealings with the legislative and executive branches in the upcoming session.

Kelley, whose annual salary increased to $120,459 during his absence, intends on keeping a low profile through the session, saying he doesn’t want to be part of any “political circus.”

“I will continue to perform the job the people of Washington have elected me to do and I will not back down in the face of political pressure and a false indictment,” he said in a formal statement.

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

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