Washington state auditor Troy Kelley returned to work at the Capitol in Olympia this week. We have to ask why he bothers. His political career is dead, and even he now says he regrets ever running for office.
Of course, the practical reason the Tacoma Democrat came back is that it buys him time – and possibly a defense – against a bipartisan impeachment effort for dereliction of duty that was begun this week by four state House members.
Because he’s been on unpaid leave since May, it also gives him an income while he fights federal charges of avoiding federal taxes, money laundering and keeping stolen funds obtained through his former escrow business in California. His federal trial begins in March – about the time any impeachment would be reaching a conclusion.
Kelley began his unpaid leave in early May at a time when Gov. Jay Inslee and other leaders in both major parties were calling on him to resign.
By returning to the job, Kelley can try showing he hasn’t abandoned his elective office.
In the end, Kelley may be right and he may win vindication. The prosecution’s charges may be unfair, as he claims, and the government may be selective in targeting his former business practice of retaining certain escrow fees from property sales that other firms arguably also held onto.
But any victory he obtains by returning to work at this point may ultimately hurt the public’s faith in state government. The agency was running fine after he handed off management of daily operation to his former deputy, Jan Jutte, who is performing ably by all accounts.
Kelley says in his defense that others – including U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and the late former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska – were allowed to serve while under indictment and did not face impeachment.
“I see no principled reason why the Washington state Legislature should treat my situation differently,” he said.
But at some point a car can get so banged up it no longer belongs on the road, and public perceptions of a damaged politician are hardly different.
Even Kelley acknowledged Monday in an interview with Northwest News Network that he regretted running for office.
“In retrospect, I would not have run for auditor,” he told the radio network. “I probably wouldn’t have run for House of Representatives (prior to that) … It’s just too hard on the family, too hard on the kids.’’
Kelley should get a good night’s sleep and think this through. The question he needs to answer is, what’s the point in staying?