A judge on Friday blocked an attempt to recall Troy Kelley from office.
The indicted state auditor is on a leave of absence from his elected office to try to fend off federal felony charges that include tax evasion.
Kelley was not present Friday when Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson heard legal arguments on a recall attempt that is separate from that criminal case. After a hearing that ran more than an hour, the judge ruled that the recall charges didn’t meet the legal standard to proceed.
Will Knedlik, a disbarred lawyer and former state lawmaker from Kirkland who called for the recall, said he will appeal to the state Supreme Court. But for now, he can’t start collecting the 715,800 signatures he would need to put Kelley’s ouster on the ballot.
Knedlik’s allegations include that Kelley violated a requirement in the state constitution for the auditor to live in Olympia.
Kelley lives in Tacoma. But Cuthbertson said nothing in Knedlik’s petition for recall proves he doesn’t have another home in Olympia. The judge also said a state Supreme Court case from 1958 allows elected officials to commute from outside Olympia.
“Even if the auditor does not reside in Olympia,” Cuthbertson said, “his conduct would not amount to an intentional violation of his oath of office. The auditor would be allowed to rely on the court’s decision.”
Knedlik said he would appeal that aspect of the case and said the judge was mixing up the state officials who are and aren’t allowed to commute.
“My primary concern is the constitution has to mean something or people have no basis on which to have confidence in government,” he said.
Knedlik said he probably would also appeal a second aspect of the case. Knedlik, a longtime critic of Sound Transit, argued Kelley failed to do enough to investigate the mass-transit agency.
But Cuthbertson said Kelley audited the agency, and his predecessor, Brian Sonntag, found Sound Transit resolved several problems Sonntag had found there.
Knedlik said he isn’t sure if he would appeal on a third charge: that the Auditor’s Office improperly hired Kelley’s longtime business associate, Jason JeRue.
Kelley attorney Jeffrey Paul Helsdon said an elected official like Kelley can hire whomever he wishes to positions such as JeRue held, which are exempt from civil service. Cuthbertson said he didn’t know of any evidence Kelley tried to hire JeRue to a civil-service job, which would have required Kelley to follow a process.
Acting Auditor Jan Jutte fired JeRue on Monday within minutes of Kelley departing on his leave of absence. The Auditor’s Office has not said why it fired JeRue.
Helsdon defended Kelley on some of the charges while deputy solicitor general Jeffrey Even of state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office defended him on other accusations. In the past, Helsdon has represented recall proponents in prominent attempts to oust South Sound politicians Cy Sun and Dale Washam.
The recall was a long shot even if the judge had allowed it to go forward.
“The reality of the situation is that getting 715,000 signatures is extremely difficult,” Gov. Jay Inslee said ahead of the court hearing. “It would take thousands of people or several million dollars. I doubt that’s going to actually happen.”
A better solution would be for Kelley to resign, Inslee said. The governor has been calling on his fellow Democrat to step down without avail since minutes after federal prosecutors made his indictment public April 16.