The controversy over extravagant spending on furnishings by the West Virginia Supreme Court has died down, but the story isn’t over, nor should it be.
As first reported by Kennie Bass of WCHS-TV, the Supreme Court spent $3.7 million since 2009 on renovations. Some of the work was necessary maintenance on the physical plant of the aging and historically significant Capitol building.
But Bass’s reporting also revealed spending for which there is no justification:
—$32,000 for a sectional sofa and $7,500 for a specially designed inlaid wooden floor in the shape of the state in Chief Justice Allen Loughry’s office.
—$8,098 for a desk chair and $28,194 for two rugs in the office of Justice Robin Davis. (Davis’s office renovations without the chair cost $433,105.)
—$8,892 for a sofa in Justice Margaret Workman’s office.
—$6,600 to renovate an historic desk in Justice Menis Ketchum’s office.
—$130,654 for extensive renovations of Justice Beth Walker’s chambers, even though those chambers were upgraded just seven years ago when Justice Brent Benjamin occupied them.
Chief Justice Loughry has criticized the spending, placing the blame of former State Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury, calling him “a rogue employee.” Loughry argues Canterbury hid the true costs of the furnishings, adding that he fired Canterbury when the spending became apparent and launched an investigation into Canterbury’s tenure.
Canterbury counters that he was following the court’s directives. For example, Canterbury told MetroNews that he talked with Loughry about the now-infamous couch.
“When I saw what it (the cost) was going to be, I looked at him (Loughry) and said, ‘This is going to be a lot of money’,” Canterbury said on Talkline. “I’ll never forget it. He (Loughry) said, ‘If it comes out, I’ll just blame you. You’re the administrator. You sign off on this’.”
So we have a “he-said-he-said” situation.
Legislative leaders I have talked with are taking the matter seriously. Both Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Judiciary Leader John Shott have called for an amendment to the state Constitution that would give the Legislature purview of the Judiciary’s budget, which this year is $142 million.
It’s debatable whether that’s a good idea, and the people’s elected representatives will have that discussion when the regular session begins in January. However, it’s important that lawmakers are armed with the facts before jumping to any conclusions about whether we should try to change the Constitution.
One thing West Virginians can agree on is that the spending that occurred at the high court was outrageous and illustrative of the kind of hubris that causes people to lose faith in our institutions.