Kelley must put auditor agency first

State Auditor Troy Kelley finds himself in the middle of very public questions about his personal dealings again. It’s not yet certain that he’s the primary target of a federal inquiry — or merely an associate of an FBI target or some other kind of bystander. It’s also too early to say he’s done wrong, regardless of what some detractors are claiming.

It’s possible that Treasury agents who searched Kelley’s Tacoma home and the FBI query at his office earlier this month were targeting past associates of the first-term Democratic auditor, which is what a subpoena made public late Friday by his office appeared to show.

But ongoing questions may become a distraction for the Auditor’s Office, which is charged with auditing the books for state and local government agencies.

Kelley should put his agency ahead of personal concerns and consider taking a temporary leave — until it’s clear that the investigation by the FBI, Treasury agents and reportedly a grand jury do not portend formal charges against him.

So far, Kelley is not saying much including why a former associate, Jason Jerue, from Kelley’s controversial old escrow company, The Post Closing Department, is now on the state auditor’s payroll as a part-time technical writer while working from home in California.

To their credit, Kelley’s top staffers stepped in to handle records requests subpoenaed by the government while Kelley and his family were apparently in California during spring break. That appears to have been done before Gov. Jay Inslee recommended such a level of separation last week.

There have been calls from state Republican Party chairwoman Susan Hutchison suggesting Kelley should step down from the agency. That is premature, given the lack of specific evidence of wrongdoing.

What we have seen is a disturbing but circumstantial case made against Kelley by his critics during the 2012 auditor’s race. This involved the legal settlement Kelley reached in a 2010 lawsuit concerning $1.2 million in disputed fees he collected from Old Republic Title, a former client. The settled lawsuit also questioned his movement of $3.8 million among accountsand whether he paid taxes on the funds.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, has suggested Kelley should simply take a leave of absence until the nature of the federal inquiry is better understood.

Going without a top leader temporarily would not cripple the agency. The Washington State Patrol has gotten along since November without Chief John Batiste, who suffered a stroke while in Hawaii. Batiste’s deputies have been filling in while he recuperates.

Kelley didn’t help himself upon his return Monday, declining to meet with reporters. He insisted in a written statement that he doesn’t know the reason for the probe, which includes federal requests for information from his agency, the House of Representatives where he served three terms until 2012, the Public Disclosure Commission and the Department of Revenue.

In his statement, Kelley wrote: “I have fully cooperated with their investigation and remain puzzled by their interest … I do not know any specifics about their inquiry, despite repeated requests for information, and cannot comment further.” He also assured the public “that all of my actions over the years have been lawful and appropriate.”

That may be. But by stepping aside temporarily he could give more assurance the agency is in good hands.