The indictment of West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry brings to mind the legal truism that the cover-up is often worse than the crime.
A federal grand jury has returned a 22-count indictment against the justice with ominous sounding charges like mail fraud and wire fraud. However, a closer look at the indictment shows that while the alleged crimes are serious, especially for a member of the court, they do not rise to anywhere near the highest levels of political corruption.
For example, Loughry is accused of falsely claiming mileage for trips where he used a Court vehicle and a state government credit card to pay for gasoline. The indictment alleges Loughry collected several hundred dollars worth of gas reimbursement checks that he was not entitled to.
The indictment also accuses him of moving a valuable historic Cass Gilbert desk and a leather couch from the Supreme Court to his home office. The federal government argues that Loughry unlawfully converted public property to his private use.
Those are the kinds of things—padding the expense account, stealing from work—that get you fired, but rarely lead to criminal charges, unless large amounts of money and/or equipment are involved. So why have Loughry’s alleged improprieties become a federal case?
First, Mike Stuart, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, is making public corruption a priority. The people of West Virginia “have worked too hard and too long to tolerate misconduct that strikes at the heart of the public’s trust of elected officials,” he said at Wednesday’s press conference. “I intend to do all I can to ensure that our people have the honest government they deserve.”
Second, Loughry actually asked for the investigation. According to the indictment, after the media started asking about the excessive spending by the Court, “Loughry met with a Special Agent of the FBI and a representative of the United States Attorney’s Office… to report his own concerns about spending by other Justices of the Supreme Court and the former Administrative Director (Steve Canterbury) that he believed was unauthorized or otherwise inappropriate.”
That bell can’t be unrung. Once alerted, federal investigators were going to see where the investigation led, and in this case, it led back to Loughry.
Third — and this is the most significant legal challenge for Loughry — the indictment contends he lied to federal investigators. Counts 19, 20 and 21 accuse Loughry of making false statements to the FBI when questioned about using the state vehicle for personal business and moving the Cass Gilbert desk to his house.
Additionally, count 22 alleges witness tampering. The indictment accuses Loughry of attempting to coach a Supreme Court employee “by planting false facts about a purported conversation” to influence the information that person might give to investigators.
If one were inclined to give Loughry the benefit of the doubt, you could argue the gasoline reimbursements and the home office were mistakes or poor judgment. Those actions would still be problematic for a state Supreme Court Justice — especially one who literally wrote the book about public corruption in the state — though they do not rise to the level of “a federal case.”
Lying to federal investigators, however, creates a nearly inescapable entanglement. The alleged crimes that led to the investigation are hardly the kind of hard-core political corruption that is so much a part of West Virginia’s history, but it’s the cover up that, if true, will be Loughry’s downfall.