State officials from both parties on Thursday called on state Auditor Troy Kelley to resign as he was arraigned on 10 criminal charges in federal court.
At the same time, some lawmakers behind the scenes were discussing their options for removing Kelley from office should he refuse to step down — and whether such an intervention would be wise.
The state constitution gives the state House the power to start impeachment proceedings against a state official. If the House votes to impeach someone, the Senate then holds a trial and can remove the person from office.
State records show no one has successfully been removed from office through impeachment proceedings, though the state House has tried.
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In 1909, the House voted to impeach Insurance Commissioner John Schively for extorting money from insurance companies that wanted to do business in Washington. The Senate later acquitted Schively of all charges, and he continued to serve through 1913.
The state House also voted to impeach a Jefferson County Superior Court judge in 1891, but those charges were dropped.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, joined Democratic officials Thursday in urging Kelley to resign. Yet Schoesler said the Legislature should take care to not interfere with the federal criminal proceedings and wouldn’t say whether he’d support lawmakers subpoenaing Kelley to testify before the Legislature, or impeaching the embattled auditor.
House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen also urged caution, saying that lawmakers and the public should refrain from judging Kelley until the federal court has had an opportunity to do so.
“We still have a system that you’re innocent until proven guilty,” said Kristiansen, R-Snohomish. “Despite whatever we’ve seen so far, it’s now in the court’s hands to deal with this. … Let’s make sure that due process is done in this situation.”
In Washington, high-ranking public officials have been indicted on federal charges only a handful of times.
The last federal investigation to target a prominent Washington state official appears to be the 20-month FBI undercover investigation called Gamscam that led in 1980 to a federal racketeering indictment against former House Speaker John Bagnariol and Senate Majority Leader Gordon Walgren.
Previously, a jury found Senate Majority Leader August Mardesich not guilty of extortion and tax evasion in 1975.
State archivist Steve Excell said his office has found no other instances in which a statewide elected official in Washington has been indicted on federal charges.
In calling on Kelley to resign, some Republicans said it is important that he do so before May 11, the first day that candidates can file to run for office in the November election.
If Kelley’s position becomes vacant before May 11, whoever the governor appoints to replace Kelley will serve until November 2015, when a special election will be held to decide who will serve the remainder of the unexpired term.
If the position becomes vacant on May 11 or afterward, Gov. Jay Inslee’s appointee will serve through November 2016, when the office would normally be up for re-election, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Freshman state Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said Thursday he thinks the Legislature should look into impeaching Kelley to try to get him out of office before the May 11 deadline.
“I think it’s really important for him to leave by May 10, so the public can vote on his replacement this November,” Stokesbary said. “Otherwise, they don’t get a say until 2016.”
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said discussions of impeachment were premature.
“One step at a time,” Sullivan said Thursday.
A criminal indictment doesn’t disqualify someone from elected office, although a felony conviction would, said Dave Ammons, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office.
“The office is declared vacant if there is a felony conviction, and not before that,” Ammons said. “Indictment does not trigger anything.”
Kelley has been charged with 10 counts of criminal activity, all of which are felonies. A grand jury indictment alleges Kelley kept stolen money, lied under oath and evaded taxes.
The allegations revolve around Kelley’s past business tracking documents related to real-estate sales for title companies. Authorities say from 2006 to 2008, his business failed to refund client companies and their customers $2.97 million above and beyond what was owed.
Kelley evaded about $1 million in income taxes in those years by underreporting his income, authorities allege.
While state law says that midterm vacancies in the Legislature must be filled by a member of the same party, the same rules don’t appear to apply to the office of state auditor, said David Postman, a spokesman for Inslee.
The Governor’s Office is still examining exactly how the appointment process would work, but Postman said it appears Inslee could pick a member of any party — Republican, Democrat or otherwise — to replace Kelley should the auditor resign or be forced to vacate his office.