Impeachment of 4 judges sought
CHARLESTON — Deciding that the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals needs a clean slate, the House Judiciary Committee passed 14 out of 16 articles of impeachment against all sitting justices.
The committee, which was tasked with investigating the supreme court six weeks ago when Gov. Jim Justice called the West Virginia Legislature into special session June 26, was presented with 14 articles of impeachment Tuesday morning in the House Chamber.
While most of the articles of impeachment were brought against Allen Loughry, the committee approved articles against Robin Davis, Margaret Workman and Beth Walker, the newest justice on the court.
“I think the overwhelming evidence that we saw is there is a culture here, an atmosphere, of entitlement and cavalier indifference to the expenditure of taxpayer money,” said Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s unfortunate that the entire court seems to be infected by that atmosphere. We felt like we had no choice but to recommend impeachment for each and every justice.”
Articles one, five, 11 and 14 accuse Loughry, Workman and Davis of violating state code by overpaying senior status judges. The committee heard testimony from the court’s finance director Monday detailing this practice.
Senior status judges — retired judges called in to fill temporary vacancies — receive $435 per diem when presiding but can’t make more than $20,000 due to their retirement status. They also can’t make more than a sitting circuit judge — $126,000 — according to state code. To get around the state Consolidated Public Retirement Board, the supreme court would change the employment status of senior status judges to contract employees. Only chief justices could sign off on this practice.
In article two, all justices were charged with failing to discharge the duties of their office. Testimony heard over the course of the impeachment investigation focused on court use of taxpayer dollars for working lunches costing more than $42,000 over five years, more than $114,000 in framing, $1.5 million in office renovations, and using state equipment for personal use.
The court had no policies and provided no oversight regarding purchasing or travel. The committee also learned that the justices are not subject to the state Ethics Act, according to the state Auditor’s Office.
“I agree that all of these things should have been done,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, minority chair for the committee. “I think that adopting a resolution that would eliminate the entire sitting supreme court of the State of West Virginia because they didn’t have policies that prevented some behavior we all find very troubling is reckless.”
Most of the articles were aimed squarely at Loughry, who is already facing a 23-count federal indictment and 32-count complaint from the state Judicial investigation Commission for misuse of his office. Articles three through seven accused Loughry of taking an antique desk and a couch donated to the court to his home, using state computers for his family’s personal use, and using state vehicles and fuel cards on personal trips.
Article seven focused on Loughry’s expensive office renovations and furnishings. Taxpayers spent $264,301 for Loughry’s office renovations, plus $7,500 for an inlaid wooden floor of the State of West Virginia, and $32,000 on a suede couch. Judiciary committee members toured the justice’s office Monday, including Loughry’s.
Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley, held up a Big Lots ad and pointed out the modest costs of the couches and loveseats listed inside.
“This is what I think average West Virginians are looking at for paying for their sofas. It is insulting,” Overington said. “I sat down in that sofa upstairs and it didn’t seem that different from the sofas I’ve sat in.”
Democrats on the committee pushed back on article seven. While many expressed outrage at the spending by justices, the minority members said the court has control over its own spending. Voters will be able to vote for an amendment to the state constitution that will give budgetary oversight to the legislature in November.
“By the rules they had over there being in control of their own budget, (Loughry) was allowed to do that,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha. “Had he owned it or paid it back, it would have been quite different.”
“I am troubled by the spending, but I’m not willing to go that far,” Fleischauer said, referring to the article as a “coup.” Article seven passed with 21-3 vote.
An amendment to article five by Fleischauer added additional language regarding Loughry’s use of state vehicles during Christmas holidays for weeks when the court was not in session. The amendment passed 21-3, but Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, spoke against the amendment.
“On Christmas usage, we don’t know if (Loughry) had any speaking engagements,” Fast said. “We don’t know if the car sat at his house most of the time and he went to some speaking engagement. I’d argue we keep the article the way it is. It’s specific to what we do know.”
Walker, who is only one and a half years into her first term on the court, was charged in articles eight and nine. Article eight accuses Walker of having unneeded renovations to her office. Walker’s office renovations cost $130,655, which were done eight years after former Justice Brent Benjamin’s renovations to the same office, which cost $264,301. Article nine accused Walker of outsourcing the writing of a legal opinion, costing taxpayer dollars. The committee rejected article nine, 9-14.
Articles 10 and 12 charged Davis and Workman with unneeded and costly renovations to their offices. Article 13 accused Workman of hiring favored individuals who had no important work purpose.
During testimony, the committee learned that Workman had the court hire four former campaign staffers. Scott Harvey, the former director of technology for the court, testified that John Pritt, the owner of JRP Consulting, worked on Workman’s election. Pritt was hired as an IT consultant, though Harvey said he wasn’t needed.
Discussion of article 13 centered on the hypocrisy of charging Workman for hiring campaign staff when many state elected officials also hire campaign staff for state offices. An amendment to the article removing language referring to former campaign workers was passed, but there was still concern over the amendment. It was rejected 13-10.
During discussion, a motion was made to add an additional article of impeachment against Loughry for lying under oath to the House Finance Committee in budget hearings during the 2018 legislative session.
When asked by committee members, Loughry denied any involvement in the renovations and the purchase of office furnishings. Drawings and testimony during the impeachment hearings showed that Loughry was very active in the renovation process, even drawing how he wanted the office layout to look.
Another article presented by Delegate Andrew Robinson focused on the $6,288 spent by the court for picture frames for Loughry. Several items were framed, including personal items which can no longer be found in Loughry’s office. The committee passed the new article
“I offered this amendment because I think it’s very inappropriate to have your wedding pictures, your book, and your inauguration to be framed at taxpayer expense,” Robinson said.
The original articles of impeachment presented Tuesday morning were drafted Monday evening by committee staff and impeachment managers in executive session after testimony from current and from court employees and legislative auditors, with 73 exhibits entered into evidence.
“We believe that the evidence is pretty compelling on most of the charges,” Shott said. “There are some areas that we need to fortify somewhat and we’ll be doing additional work on the issues raised today. But some of these are pretty overwhelming obvious.”
The committee will renumber the articles of impeachment and make them available to delegates and the public. The House of Delegates will reconvene on Monday, Aug. 13, at 10 a.m. to consider the articles. If the articles pass, they’ll head to the state Senate, where senators will sit as a jury to consider the articles and evidence.
If any justice is removed from office by the Senate, the governor will appoint replacements until special elections can be called for the justices not already up for reelection in 2020. Since former Justice Menis Ketchum resigned on July 27, a special election will be held this November to fill the remainder of his term, which is up in 2020. Ketchum is working with federal investigators after agreeing to a plea deal. He is being charged with one count of wire fraud.
Gov. Jim Justice, who was holding a press conference to celebrate surplus revenue numbers for July, addressed the articles being considered by the House committee.
“We’ve got some tough news going on with the supreme court,” Justice said. “That’s not good. Just to tell it like it is, it’s a black eye that we don’t need in West Virginia. We’ll work our way through that I’m sure.”