Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Troy Kelley: A Man Of Mystery, Even To His Own Staff

Washington State Auditor Troy Kelley was not in the office Wednesday. His staff say they don’t know when the Democrat will be back.

A federal probe is examining Kelley’s past business dealings. Federal agents searched his home, and a grand jury subpoenaed records from his office. Suddenly the spotlight is on a public official who’s known for being a very private person.

Troy Kelley has a corner office in the state Insurance Building just across the street from the Capitol. The office contains a clutter-free desk and a few personal touches. A couple of framed family pictures. Military mementos -- Kelley is in the National Guard. An old baseball mitt. Framed diplomas.

Where is Troy Kelley?

Chief of Staff Doug Cochran described his boss as an introvert. “He keeps to himself, he’s quiet, kind of closed a little bit personality,” Cochran said.

Cochran deflected a question regarding how much time Kelley actually spends in this office.

“I’m just not the person that could do that,” he said. “I mean, I can’t tell you that he’s here all the time, I can’t tell you that he’s never here. You know, I have as much contact as I need.”

Kelley’s schedule for his first nearly two years in office doesn’t really answer the question either. For about a third of the work days, where Kelley was and what he was doing is not accounted for.

He is, of course, allowed to take vacation. But for more than 150 days during this period, his calendar does not indicate what he was doing during business hours or the day is blocked with an “x” - an internal code for do not schedule.

What Kelley was doing on these days is a mystery he hasn’t been willing to clear up.

“He is not available and why, nobody can answer that but Troy,” Cochran said. “He’s assessing the situation he’s in in this investigation and he’s making the determination that he’s not going to be available to the media.”

An elected figurehead

One thing is clear: either much of Kelley’s public life is off the books or his private life consumes a lot of his working days. Whatever the answer, Cochran thinks it’s irrelevant.

“It isn’t about putting in 40 hours as much as it is being the elected figurehead representing the public in some function that exists,” he said.

The function of the office of state auditor is to audit state and local government, conduct performance audits and investigate fraud and whistleblower allegations. Washington is one of only 18 states with an elected state auditor. The position is established in the state constitution. But on a day-to-day basis, Cochran said the office pretty much runs itself.

“Troy could say I’m going on vacation to Hawaii, I’ll be back in July. For the most part life goes on and nothing much changes,” Cochran said.

In those moments when the elected Auditor is needed, Cochran said he’s always been able to track down Kelley -- even if Kelley’s not in the office.

Kelley did return to the office at the start of this week after being away on vacation, but he remained hidden from public view. He issued a written statement saying he’s done nothing wrong.

‘An office that is typically beyond reproach’

Brian Sonntag preceded Kelley as a five-term Democratic state auditor. He’s concerned that Kelley’s troubles run counter to what the office stands for.

“Integrity, trust, independence, transparency and accountability -- those are all the standards that should and do apply to that office and I think citizens expect nothing less,” Sonntag said.

“Because this is an office that is typically beyond reproach,” explained former state Democratic Party chairman Paul Berendt. He said even before all this Kelley was an unusual personality for the state’s watchdog.

“He’s not as well known in the Capitol community as most of the other statewide elected officials,” Berendt said. He noted that Kelley -- a former state legislator -- largely self-financed his state auditor campaign in 2012. He beat out a crowded Democratic primary and then went on to win the general election despite questions about his past business dealings.

“Oddly, I think he kind of slipped into office,” Berendt said.

Earning his keep?

Since taking office in January of 2013, Kelley’s staff said he’s racked up a long list of accomplishments. His office completed a pair of performance audits on state IT security. It eliminated a backlog of whistleblower complaints. And Kelley sought to make the auditor’s office more lean -- a smaller executive team, many fewer directors and one less office lease.

Kelley also declined the use of a state vehicle. Asked if Kelley is earning his nearly $117,000 a year salary, Cochran answered, “I don’t think there’s a way to measure that of any of the state elected officials. I think when the public elects them they’ve got a job and a certain level of authority the public hands them.”

In return he said there needs to be a dialogue between that official and the public -- and that he admits is currently suffering because of the cloud that hangs over Troy Kelley.


Olympia Correspondent Austin Jenkins collaborated with the Olympian and News Tribune newspapers for this report.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."