In case you missed it — and given the awful disruption of a deadly local train wreck, it’s no surprise if you did — erstwhile Washington state Auditor Troy Kelley stood last week in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, where he faced the music to the tune of nine felony convictions.
Few people, including news reporters who swarmed Kelley’s initial trial last year, were paying attention. That’s what happens when an elected statewide official indicted on federal charges including tax fraud and possession of stolen property becomes a former statewide official sweating through a 21-day trial on similar charges.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office decided to go after Kelley again after a jury in April 2016 acquitted him of one charge and deadlocked on 14 others. Of the 14 felony counts he faced this time around, the jury found the Tacoma resident and former 28th Legislative District representative guilty of all but five counts of money laundering.
Despite prosecutors’ zeal, Kelley’s criminal case has never packed the punch of a classic public corruption scandal. His downfall lacked the juice of George Janovich, the Pierce County sheriff sent to prison on racketeering charges in 1979 for protecting a mobster.
The script for Kelley’s story wasn’t “Angels with Dirty Faces.” More like “Escrow Agents with Sneaky Fingers.”
One reason for the relatively low-hum interest in Kelley’s case: He wasn’t accused of misdeeds in office. His charges stemmed from his white-collar work as a private real estate services professional before he won election as auditor in 2012.
The sizzle also was lessened by the eye-glazing minutiae and document shuffling of the mortgage industry. At issue were his practices while running Post Closing Department, which tracked reconveyance paperwork on real estate deals during the mid-2000s. He failed to refund home buyers for county recording and other modest fees they didn’t end up having to pay.
Most observers would have fallen asleep if not for the high political drama. Kelley clung to his auditor’s title throughout the ordeal (though he took a seven-month leave of absence), withstanding calls to resign and threats of impeachment from Democrats and Republicans alike. One state legislator colorfully described Kelley as taking part in a “self-imposed witness-protection program.”
It was both disgraceful and ironic that Kelley kept collecting a paycheck as the state’s chief sentinel of integrity while all this played out. His term ended a year ago; at least he knew enough not to run for reelection.
Kelley was one of three straight Washington auditors to rise from the ranks of Tacoma Democrats. Local voters can take solace that his tenure was merely an embarrassing blip between the steady leadership of five-term incumbent Brian Sonntag and first-term Auditor Pat McCarthy.
Kelley’s criminal case might yet drag on into appeals; his attorneys maintain he was maliciously targeted by prosecutors for common real-estate title industry practices and that a grave injustice was done. If this is his formula for getting on with his life, he’s certainly entitled to keep fighting in court.
But if the long saga continues, Kelley can be sure of one thing: Hardly anyone will notice, even without a train wreck to distract them.