Story updated at 5:30 p.m. with comments from interview with Troy Kelley.
OLYMPIA – Facing renewed calls for impeachment, State Auditor Troy Kelley returned to his office Tuesday morning, saying he was ending his voluntary leave of absence.
Less than 24 hours after four legislators filed an impeachment resolution that accused him of malfeasance for being away from his post for months, Kelley decided to fight back, by coming back.
“I believed that taking the unpaid leave struck a fair balance between succumbing to false claims and honoring my commitment to the public,” he wrote in a memo to staff. “If the Legislature would rather have me continue working as state auditor as I fight these unfair charges, I’m prepared and willing to do so.”
Kelley faces federal charges of money laundering, possession of stolen money and filing false tax returns from the real estate services business he operated before his election. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is scheduled for trial in March. He will likely take vacation time to be away from the office for the trial.
“I have a distraction, there’s no doubt about that,” Kelley said in an interview. Last week, he was in court for two days of pre-trial hearings, but said he didn’t expect another such interruption before the trial.
He thanked Jan Jutte, a deputy he appointed as acting state auditor when announcing his leave of absence, and said he would be taking over his old duties. “I will not back down in the face of political pressure and a false indictment.”
If convicted, Kelley said, he would resign immediately, even though he would expect to appeal. But he defended his decision to go on unpaid leave seven months ago, saying he had an attorney general’s opinion that suggested that action, and some legislators also advocated it at the time.
Fellow Democrat Attorney General Bob Ferguson has since called for his resignation, and on Monday, four legislators – two Republicans and two Democrats – filed a resolution calling for his impeachment and asked that the House vote on it the first week of the 2016 session. It alleges malfeasance because he was absent from his office for an extended period, leaving an unelected person in his place.
“I would not have come back without the impeachment articles yesterday,” he said. “Things were working well.”
Jutte, a long-time employee of the office, did “a great job” as his stand-in and will have a special assignment working closely with him, Kelley said.
Gov. Jay Inslee, also a Democrat, and legislative leaders of both parties have called for Kelley to resign. In response to Kelley’s return, Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said the governor is repeating the call and believes his presence will disrupt the work of the office.
“The office of the auditor provides essential accountability and watchdog functions for state government and should remain free from the distractions and drama of Troy Kelley’s legal challenges,” Inslee said in a press release.
Kelley shot back that Inslee is selective in his calls for resignation, and has not criticized former members of Congress, where the governor served for 15 years, who refused to resign after they were indicted for taking bribes connected to their congressional service. His indictment is for actions predating his election in 2012.
Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, a co-sponsor of the impeachment resolution, said supporters will discuss how to proceed before the session starts in January. Kelley’s return ends questions of malfeasance for the future, but leaves open the question of whether it applies to his long absence, he said.
“I think enough damage has been done in the seven months he’s been gone,” Reykdal said. If Kelley could return within 24 hours of reports of the impeachment resolution being filed, “why wasn’t he there in the last seven months?”
Rep. Drew MacEwen, R-Union, said he believes Kelley was absent so long that his return will not stop the impeachment efforts.
“Those charges still stand,” MacEwen, another co-sponsor, said. “We intend to press forward with the resolution.”
The auditor's office up for election in 2016. Even if found not guilty, Kelley said he does not intend to run for re-election.