- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - State Auditor Troy Kelley, embroiled in a federal investigation, skipped a chance to testify before lawmakers Wednesday, a development that has them pondering their subpoena power.

While Kelley passed up the chance to testify, he did respond in writing to a Tuesday night letter from Gov. Jay Inslee that asked whether the investigation had disrupted the work of the office or hurt public confidence in it.

“While the intense media coverage may have been a distraction, there is no change or impact on our audit and field operations,” Kelley wrote back Wednesday.

He added: “We have anecdotal evidence of public disappointment that I am not able to speak to the media and the public about federal investigators’ search of my home and subpoena for certain documents from our Office. The public comments we have received are not directed at the Office, our employees, or the excellent work the State Auditor’s Office is doing.”

Kelley also said in the letter released Wednesday afternoon that an employee of the auditor’s office who was the subject of a federal subpoena was on a requested leave of absence.

Earlier Wednesday, Sen. Mark Miloscia, the chairman of the Senate Accountability and Reform Committee, had invited Kelley to a hearing about integrity and ethical standards at his state agency. Kelley’s home was searched by federal agents last month, and his office turned over records to a federal grand jury that has been asking questions about his former escrow-services business.

After Kelley skipped the hearing, Miloscia said he was concerned by the auditor’s “decision to go in hiding from the media, from the public, and now, the Legislature.”

“All elected officials must be held accountable to the public,” said Miloscia, a Republican from Federal Way. “That is our responsibility and our duty.”

Two members of Kelley’s staff appeared before the committee and spoke about the agency’s ethics rules and training, as well as efforts to reduce fraud in state and local government.

The state auditor’s office promotes efficiency and openness in state and local government, conducting financial and performance audits.

Sen. Pramila Jayapal, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that while she was concerned about the questions surrounding the auditor, it is “very important that we allow the current federal investigation that’s taking place to proceed unencumbered and with full due process.”

“As much as we all want answers, I believe that the state Legislature’s role at this point should be to step aside and not interfere in the federal investigation,” she said at the hearing. “I don’t see any benefit in attempting to gather information in this way while the investigation is underway, and I believe we risk politicizing an issue of utmost importance to the citizens of state of Washington.”

The committee’s staff briefed lawmakers on their authority to issue subpoenas commanding someone to appear for testimony. The Legislature hasn’t used that power since 1988, in a judicial misconduct case.

Committee staff cited case law that says any legislative subpoena must be considered within the scope of legislative authority and must focus on issues germane to future legislation.

After the hearing, Miloscia noted that it’s a high bar for a legislative subpoena, and that while no decision had yet been made on the next steps, that it was still important to have the discussion.

Kelley has not responded to multiple requests for interviews by The Associated Press and other news agencies.

Inslee said Wednesday that he sent the letter, using his constitutional authority to require state officers to answer questions in writing, because he wanted to get Kelley’s responses on the record.

“I want it in writing, and I want to be able to share it with the public because confidence in this office is very important,” Inslee said.

The letter also asked Kelley whether he was aware of any conflicts of interest that he or his staff may have that could affect the operation of the auditor’s office. Kelley said he wasn’t aware of any, and that he had immediately removed himself from any official actions regarding the investigation, including the fulfilling of the grand jury subpoena.

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Associated Press writers Gene Johnson and Derrick Nunnally contributed to this report.

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