3 W.Va. justices impeached over lavish office spending

Tuesday, August 14, 2018
West Virginia House Speaker Pro Tempore John Overington, top, presides over the start of a hearing Monday at the state Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia. The House of Delegates is considering the impeachment of the entire state Supreme Court in a scandal over $3.2 million in office renovations.
John Raby ~ Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A West Virginia Supreme Court justice facing a 23-count federal indictment was impeached Monday along with two other justices for spending issues -- part of an extraordinary move by lawmakers who are debating putting the entire court on trial in the Senate.

The state House of Delegates voted to impeach Justice Allen Loughry on two articles, sending them to the Senate.

Lawmakers approved articles against Loughry for spending $363,000 in renovations to his office and Justice Robin Davis for $500,000 in renovations. Loughry also was impeached in a separate article for taking home a $42,000 antique desk owned by the state.

Later, Chief Justice Margaret Workman and Davis were impeached for their roles in allowing senior status judges to be paid higher than allowed wages. Lawmakers say the overpayments violated state law and stopped when they were challenged by the Internal Revenue Service.

Minority Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee that approved the articles last week had tried to speed up the impeachment process in the hopes of beating an Aug. 14 deadline for arranging a special election in November if any justice is impeached. Instead, the committee took its time, even conducting a tour of the state Supreme Court offices earlier this month.

If the committee completes its work by the end of the day Monday, the special election can still be held. If not, Republican Gov. Jim Justice will be allowed to appoint new justices to replace any who are impeached -- with no requirement they be from the same party as the incumbent.

Democrats have accused Republicans of attempting to wrest the court away from voters, who elected the current justices in nonpartisan elections.

Barbara Evans Fleischauer of Monongalia County said Democrats agreed all along there was enough to recommend Loughry's impeachment. But she said going after the other justices "was a power grab, was a takeover of the court and using the impeachment process to take over another branch of government."

"We're taking away from the people," she said

The House was considering other impeachment articles, including allegations Loughry lied about taking home the desk and a $32,000 suede leather couch; and Workman and Justice Beth Walker made excessively expensive upgrades to their offices.

Some legislators said they didn't support impeaching any justice for wasteful spending, only for articles pertaining to lying, cheating or stealing.

But John Shott, a Mercer County Republican who chaired the House Judiciary Committee hearings drawing up the impeachment articles, asked whether there is public confidence in the court, and if not, "we need to take action to try to rebuild that trust."

Several lawmakers noted the Supreme Court has a separate budget and is currently allowed to spend as it sees fit. But Shott said the court should spend money wisely "and for the benefit of its citizens."

A proposed constitutional amendment this fall would bring the state courts' budget partly under legislative control.

Loughry, who wrote a 2006 book chronicling West Virginia political corruption, was indicted in June on 23 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, lying to federal law enforcement, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Justice and legislative leaders have asked him to resign. Loughry has not responded and did not testify at the committee hearings.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a day that none of us really want to be here," Delegate Tom Fast, a Republican from Kanawha County, said at the start of Monday's session.

One impeachment article accuses Loughry of lying to the House Finance Committee in January about his involvement in his office renovations, including a custom-designed wooden-inlay map showing all 55 West Virginia counties embedded in the floor.

Loughry also was cited in separate articles for using state money to frame personal items at his office; the use at his home of state-owned computers and the antique desk; and using state-owned vehicles for personal use, including over holidays.

Loughry also was cited along with Workman, Davis and Walker for failing to control expenses, including more than $1 million in renovations to their individual offices, and not maintaining policies over matters such as state vehicles, working lunches and the use of office computers at home.

Loughry, Davis and Workman also were cited for authorizing senior status judges to be overpaid in violation of state law.

Loughry was suspended earlier this year. Justice Menis Ketchum retired and agreed to plead guilty to a federal wire fraud count involving the personal use of state-owned vehicles and fuel cards.

A special election already is set in November to fill the remainder of Ketchum's term.

Circuit judge Paul T. Farrell has been sworn in to act as the court's chief justice for the Senate trial, whose timeline is uncertain. The court's fall term starts in early September. In the event one or more justices is on trial in the Senate, the court said last week it would hear all cases on the docket as scheduled.

The last time the Legislature was involved in similar proceedings was 1989, when state Treasurer A. James Manchin was impeached by the House of Delegates after the state lost $279 million invested in the bond market. Manchin resigned before the state Senate took up the impeachment measure. He was never charged and the state recovered $55 million from lawsuits against nine New York brokerage firms involved in the losses.

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