TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — A judge ruled Thursday that a recall petition filed against indicted state Auditor Troy Kelley did not meet the legal threshold necessary for backers to begin collecting signatures from state voters.
The ruling by Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson came after an hour of arguments over the filing by Will Knedlik, who says he will appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
In his petition for recall, Knedlik accused Kelley of several violations of the terms of his office, including inadequate auditing, abuses of power and violating the state constitution by living in Tacoma instead of Olympia.
"In this case it's the court's ruling that the three allegations in the petition for recall are both legally and factually insufficient to support a recall election," Cuthbertson said.
The judge also denied a motion from Knedlik that sought to have his court vacate Kelley's office. Cuthbertson said he didn't have the jurisdiction to do so.
Kelley is currently on unpaid leave from the agency after pleading not guilty in federal court to 10 felony counts, including allegations that he failed to pay taxes.
He did not appear in court for the recall matter but was represented by a private lawyer for some of the allegations and by the state attorney general's office for others related directly to his work at the agency.
On the issue of residency, a brief by Kelley's private attorney, Jeffrey Paul Helsdon, cited a 1958 state Supreme Court ruling related to travel expenses for state officials that "implicitly sanctioned their commute by automobile from their homes elsewhere to their offices in Olympia."
Cuthbertson told Knedlik the ruling "seems to fly in the face of your argument." When Knedlik challenged that statement, the judge handed him a law book.
The judge cited several other problems with Knedlik's petition, noting that it didn't state whether the auditor had a second residence in Olympia or how often he commuted.
"Even if the auditor does not reside in Olympia, his conduct would not amount to an intentional violation of his oath of office," the judge said.
After the ruling, Knedlik, a disbarred attorney and former lawmaker from Kirkland, said the judge didn't accurately interpret the high court's ruling.
The judge also said that Knedlik's claim that Kelley didn't properly audit the Sound Transit agency was without merit.
The judge also struck down Knedlik's argument that Kelley pressured his staff to hire Jason JeRue, whose work history was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury as part of the case against Kelley. Cuthbertson said Knedlik didn't specify any facts to support that accusation, and he cited an affidavit filed by a human resources director at the agency disputing that claim.
Last week, JeRue, who is not accused of any wrongdoing, was fired from the agency by acting Auditor Jan Jutte, who took over the agency when Kelley began his leave.
"This is a step in the process that had to be taken," Knedlik said after the ruling. "Obviously I would have liked a different outcome. But the reality is, I think our constitution was eviscerated today."
If the recall effort had moved forward, Knedlik would have had to gather the 715,800 signatures from registered voters required to put the recall on a statewide ballot.
After the hearing, Kelley's personal attorney said the judge properly balanced the issues before him.
"It was the right decision," Helsdon said.
Earlier Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee said Kelley's case is a distraction to the state and renewed his call for the auditor to resign.
Inslee noted the high bar for a recall effort to make it to the ballot, and he said lawmakers need to focus on forging a state budget rather than a recall or impeachment proceedings in the Legislature, which has been suggested by some lawmakers.
"So the most realistic, practical and right decision for the state of Washington is for this person to resign and allow the state to move forward," the governor said.