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Spin Control: Ousting state auditor Troy Kelley may be difficult

OLYMPIA – The chorus for Troy Kelley to resign as state auditor after he was indicted on federal charges Thursday grew louder as last week drew to a close, but any effort to force him out faces significant problems.

The biggest seems to be that there’s no clear road map on how to push a state elected official out of the position he or she holds. The state constitution has a section for impeachment, which can be started with a majority vote in the House but only culminates with removal if two-thirds of the Senate agrees.

It requires a high bar of high crimes, misdemeanors or malfeasance. The first two would require a conviction on the federal charges; the last applies only to actions while in office, and the indictment is basically pre-election.

A statewide elected official in Washington has never been impeached.

A recall petition has been filed with the secretary of state, although the signature-gathering threshold to put that on the November ballot is steep, and by then it may all be moot.

Not surprisingly, high-ranking Democrats would prefer Kelley just step down and go away to fight his battle with federal prosecutors away from the state spotlight. Gov. Jay Inslee called for his immediate resignation within minutes of the federal prosecutor’s release of the charging papers. An Inslee spokesman said Kelley called the governor before the indictment was announced to say it was coming. Inslee reportedly told Kelley at that point he should resign; the auditor said he was taking a leave of absence instead.

Within a couple hours, state Treasurer Jim McIntire, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson and the state Democratic Party all had said “Go.” Secretary of State Kim Wyman, the lone Republican in statewide elected office, waited a day before joining the chorus.

On Friday, Inslee reiterated his point in writing – not some tweet or text, but an honest-to-God printed-on-paper letter, hand-delivered to Kelley’s unoccupied office. Considering that Inslee’s office in the Capitol Building is just across the street from Kelley’s office in the Insurance Building, this was accomplished much faster than putting a stamp on it and dropping it in the mail. Five minutes, tops, even if the messenger stopped for coffee in the Capitol cafeteria.

Considering the circumstances, some of the formal wording of the letter seems perfectly aligned with Emily Post or Miss Manners, but could have average folks scratching their heads. It’s addressed to “The Honorable Troy Kelley,” although Inslee is suggesting the auditor needs to resign because he is anything but. And it ends with “Very Truly Yours.”

If Kelley does step down

Inslee would choose a replacement, but the timing is important. If the position becomes open before May 11, the first day that candidates can file for office in this year’s general elections, Inslee would appoint someone but the office would be on the August primary ballot and the November general. If he steps down on or after May 11, the appointee would serve until 2016, when that office, like all other state executive positions, are up.

The appointee need not be a Democrat, although Inslee said he was sure there are an ample supply of Democrats who could do the job.

Former Auditor Brian Sonntag told a Seattle radio host he’d be willing to take the position in a caretaker role. An appointment from Inslee seems iffy. Sonntag was, after all, the most prominent Democrat supporting Inslee’s 2012 Republican opponent Rob McKenna.

A possible candidate for the election in 2015 or 2016 could be state Sen. Mark Miloscia, who is now a Republican but ran for the office as a Democrat in 2012 and didn’t get through the primary.

The possibilities may not be endless, but they are plentiful.

If he doesn’t

Inslee’s office isn’t sure what happens when a state elected official takes an extended leave of absence under these conditions. Does pay – about $117,000 a year for this position – continue? And what about benefits like health coverage? An Inslee spokesman told the Associated Press it should not, but there’s apparently no law or rule to cover it.

Special session looms

Special session is like fight club for legislative leaders: No one talks about it. But here are three signs that one is coming:

• The 2015-17 operating budget is one of the things the Legislature MUST do. Senate Republicans and House Democrats are pretty far apart on their proposals, but negotiations broke down last week.

• Legislators have new proposals to restructure the levy system, which is so complicated that the Legislature couldn’t find a fix and agree to it in a week unless the 147 members were all Einsteins.

• With the final week of the session looming, neither chamber worked this weekend.

Not saying it’s a lock, but I’d definitely bet the over on a 105-day session.

Spin Control also appears online as a blog with daily items and reader comments at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.
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