Lawmakers: Prepare to impeach Troy Kelley

Washington state Auditor Troy Kelley talks to reporters Thursday, April 16, 2015 in Tacoma.
Washington state Auditor Troy Kelley talks to reporters Thursday, April 16, 2015 in Tacoma. AP

Unless state Auditor Troy Kelley resigns first, the 2016 Legislature’s first order of business should be his impeachment.

Kelley has faced 10 federal felony charges since last April. Last month, the U.S. Justice Department filed more charges; he now faces 17. They range from large-scale theft to money laundering to tax evasion. All of them impugn his honesty and put the Auditor’s Office — which investigates financial malfeasance — under a cloud.

State leaders from both parties have been urging him to step down since the charges were first filed. Kelley has refused, instead putting himself on an unpaid leave of absence pending resolution of the case.

His apple-pie-and-motherhood defense: Innocent until proven guilty. His attorney recently took it a step further: “Federal prosecutors shouldn’t have the power to remove a public official from office simply by accusing them of a crime.”

That suggests that the Justice Department is roaming around the country trying to pick off elected officials at random. In reality, the department has limited resources, and U.S. attorneys rarely prosecute unless they feel there’s serious misconduct and enough evidence to prove it. The investigative paperwork relating to this case so far amounts to twice the equivalent of the 32-volume Encyclopedia Britannica.

A tall stack of papers doesn’t prove Kelley is guilty, but it does demonstrate that the FBI didn’t investigate him because its agents couldn’t think of anything better to do. They’ve turned up a trove of documents that point to slick dealing on his part, and it’s not likely that even an eventual acquittal would leave him looking like someone you’d trust with your savings — let alone the Auditor’s Office.

Innocent until proven guilty is the right standard for keeping citizens out of prison, but it’s far too low a standard for an office of public trust. “Never convicted!” isn’t a testimonial of integrity.

A month ago, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Legislature jointly signed a formal request that Troy resign. The key sentences:

“It is hard to imagine that you are able to perform any services to the state while on this leave of absence, let alone fulfill the duties of such an important elected office. It is reasonable for you to focus your time and energy on your federal case, but it is unreasonable for the public to be without a trustworthy and full-time elected auditor in the meantime.”

They’re right.

Kelley should leave the office because there’s reason to distrust him, because he’s not functioning and because his case may not be resolved any time soon. The trial date keeps slipping; it’s now scheduled for March, and who knows when it will actually happen — or when appeals might be exhausted.

In the meantime, he shouldn’t hold the title of auditor.

Yet Kelley clings to the office like a barnacle to a pier. Impeachment would force the issue. The impeachment itself must be approved in the state House of Representatives, and the Senate must then hold a trial.

The trial is exactly what’s needed. Perhaps Kelley can fully exonerate himself. If so, give him the chance to do it in the Senate as well as a federal courtroom.