Defense grinds away at prosecution witnesses over issue of whether it was common for Troy Kelley’s company to keep fees that federal prosecutor’s insist were stolen

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TACOMA — Defense attorneys for State Auditor Troy Kelley continued to grind away at prosecution witnesses over fees charged by Kelley’s real-estate business that are the basis of the criminal charges against him, pointing out that the practices that landed Kelley in court apparently were common throughout the industry.

An executive at a title company that sued Kelley in 2009 for keeping so-called “reconveyance fees” rather than refunding them acknowledged under cross-examination Thursday that he had hired another company in 2002 that he had been told was engaged in the same practice.

Kelley’s alleged failure to refund unused portions of those fees is the basis of a federal grand-jury indictment accusing Kelley of theft, money laundering and tax evasion. Overall, the government has accused Kelley of stealing $3 million, $100 at a time, from thousands of transactions conducted by his business, Post Closing Department, and then trying to hide the money and avoid paying taxes on it.

Thursday’s testimony included a testy give-and-take between Carl Lago, a retired senior vice president at California-based Old Republic Title, and defense lawyer Angelo Calfo, who hammered home the fact that Lago — years before suing Kelley — had approved the hiring of another reconveyance firm in Washington — called Reconveyance Services Inc. (RSI) — after he’d been told by subordinates that RSI apparently had been keeping fees that should have been refunded.

Old Republic eventually quit using RSI, although Lago admitted under cross-examination it wasn’t because of the fee issue. In 2006, Old Republic hired Kelley and Post Closing Department to do the work because thousands of reconveyance transactions were piling up.

Post Closing Department quit doing the work in 2008 after Kelley reported a fire at his business. Old Republic sued Post Closing Department and Kelley over the unrefunded fees only after it was targeted — like almost every title company in business — by class-action lawyers in the wake of the real-estate meltdown.

Kelley settled the Old Republic lawsuit for $1.1 million but admitted no wrongdoing. His attorney said the settlement was a “business decision.”

Regarding the decision to hire Reconveyance Services in 2002, Lago acknowledged he’d seen emails from subordinates reporting that RSI was keeping more than the $15 to $20 it was supposed to charge for overseeing the reconveyance transaction. In most cases, RSI collected about $100 to cover that fee and other costs associated with making sure property titles were clear for homebuyers.

“It didn’t concern me,” he said.

“Did you ever notify law enforcement” about those actions, Calfo asked him.

“No,” he said.

Later, Post Closing Department and Kelley would take over that business, and according to the government, Kelley’s decision to keep that money prompted a criminal investigation when it came to light during the Democrat’s 2012 run for state auditor.

Must of the testimony Thursday was extremely complicated and delved deeply into the real-estate transaction business. Some jurors yawned.

Kelley, who has insisted he is innocent, has refused to step down as auditor but took a leave of absence last year. He has said that he will not run for re-election and that the investigation has ruined his political career.

If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.