Legislature evaluates impeaching judge

PARKERSBURG — Impeachment preparations over the controversy at the West Virginia Supreme Court involving suspended Justice Allen Loughry have begun.

The Joint Judiciary Committee was instructed to evaluate the possibility of impeachment proceedings in a letter Friday from Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Tim Armstead, telling the chairmen during the June interim meetings to “initiate a process of reviewing all available information for the purpose of evaluating impeachment proceedings which may be necessary for any member or members of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.”

Interims are scheduled through Tuesday. The Legislature has been investigating expenditures of more than $360,000 to renovate offices at the Supreme Court.

A grand jury last Wednesday indicted Loughry, a Tucker County native, in a 22-count indictment accusing him of mail fraud, wire fraud, making false statements to a federal agent and witness tampering. Media outlets report Loughry pleaded not guilty Friday two hours before West Virginia lawmakers announced they were considering impeachment.

Loughry faces a maximum prison sentence of 395 years and up to $5.5 million in fines if convicted on all charges.

An indictment accuses Loughry of using a state car and credit card for personal items. It accuses him of moving a leather couch and historic desk from the Supreme Court offices to his home. And it says he lied to federal agents about his actions.

Earlier this month, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint against Loughry seeking his immediate suspension and the revocation of his law license.

A request for a comment from the Supreme Court was not immediately returned.

Comments also were requested from Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, and Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, chairmen of the joint committee and also were not immediately returned.

“The recent legislative audit, investigation and federal court action related to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, including the Federal indictment announced on June 20, 2018, are cause for great concern among members of the Legislature and the citizens of West Virginia,” the letter from Carmichael and Armstead said.

The committee is to review Legislative Audit reports, the Judicial Investigation Committee complaint filed against Loughry and the federal indictment, the letter said.

“While all potential parties to any matter such as an impeachment proceeding are entitled to a presumption of innocence, the serious allegations demand that we begin the process of evaluating whether formal impeachment proceedings are proper and advisable,” the letter said. “Some have suggested that impeachment proceedings can be initiated and concluded in a matter of a day or two. Based on research that has been conducted by legislative attorneys, staff members and historical precedence, such an abbreviated time frame is unrealistic.”

Carmichael and Armstead cited the impeachment proceedings against the late Treasurer A. James Manchin in 1989 when the Judiciary Committee held a 10-day hearing and questioned 19 witnesses. Manchin was impeached by the House, but resigned before a trial was held in the Senate.

The impeachment procedure is cited in Article IV Section 9 of the state Constitution, stating the House shall have the sole power of impeachment and the Senate shall have the sole power to try impeachments, both requiring a two thirds majority of members.

The officer is removed from office upon conviction by the Senate.

“It is our opinion that the most efficient and time-effective manner of considering impeachment proceedings is for a subcommittee of the Joint Judiciary Committee to undertake an immediate review of this matter as part of the open and public interim process,” the letter said. “This review would allow the committee to reach a determination of whether it wishes to introduce and consider articles of impeachment against one or more members of the Supreme Court of Appeals as well as to consider and recommend to us any additional action deemed appropriate in relation to the current matters relating to the court.”

The committee was asked to complete its review as soon as possible and prior to the next regularly scheduled legislative interim meetings, provide recommendations including recommendations as to whether a special session may be appropriate to take formal action on an impeachment.

“Due to the different responsibilities of the House and Senate relating to any impeachment proceedings, and the fact that Senate members would be called upon to essentially sit as jurors if any articles of impeachment were adopted by the House of Delegates, we believe that it would be appropriate for this matter to be considered in a subcommittee of the Joint Judiciary Committee composed only of House members,” the letter said.

“A separate subcommittee of the Joint Judiciary Committee consisting of the Senate members may wish to evaluate the rules that would be applied if and when any articles of impeachment were referred to the Senate by the House of Delegates.”