CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Impeachment proceedings focused on the West Virginia Supreme Court continue Friday, with Justice Menis Ketchum now out of the mix because of his retirement announcement this week.
The impeachment hearings before the House Judiciary Committee were set to begin again at 9 a.m. today. On Thursday, the first day, lawmakers heard testimony from the Legislative Auditor about investigations into justices’ use of state vehicles and Justice Allen Loughry’s possession of an antique desk.
Supporting testimony on those topics is expected today.
As proceedings started in the House Chamber on Thursday, Judiciary Chairman John Shott made it clear the committee would no longer be considering Ketchum. The only punishment for impeachment is removal from office, and Ketchum took care of that himself, setting his retirement date for the end of this month.
Shott said matters involving the court as a group would remain relevant. But the committee will not get into specific findings about Justice Ketchum any more.
“That should shorten our proceedings somewhat,” Shott said.
The House Judiciary Committee is considering whether to recommend the impeachment of Justice Loughry or any other members of the state Supreme Court.
The state Constitution lays out the grounds for impeachment but only in the broadest terms: “Any officer of the state may be impeached for maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, neglect of duty, or any high crime or misdemeanor.”
The House of Delegates is the body that presents articles of impeachment and then the state Senate acts as a jury.
“We have an obligation to hold accountable the public officials that the public can’t hold accountable,” Shott said during opening remarks, referencing the 12-year terms of Supreme Court justices.
Describing the level of responsibility, Shott added, “We are encroaching, in a sense, on a separate branch of government.” He said the Senate “would require clear and convincing evidence.”
West Virginia has reached this point after months of controversy involving the Supreme Court.
Scandals came to a head this summer when Loughry was first charged by the state Judicial Investigations Commission and then by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In each case, Loughry was accused not only of misusing state resources but, worse, lying about the acts to investigators.
He has been suspended from the Supreme Court.
It all started last September with news reports about lavish renovations of justices’ chambers: the $32,000 couch and $7,500 wooden inlaid floor in Justice Loughry’s office, a $500,000 office renovation and $28,000 rugs in Justice Robin Davis’s office, and a $130,000 upgrade of Justice Beth Walker’s chambers.
Loughry denied guiding his own renovations and matters got worse.
Controversy then erupted over Loughry’s possession at his home of an antique desk associated with famed architect Cass Gilbert from when the state Capitol was first built. He took it home in 2012 while he was still a law clerk.
Then another couch added fuel to the fire. Loughry was accused of taking home a leather couch that had belonged to Justice Joseph Albright.
Those allegations kicked off a series of investigations by the Legislative Auditor.
The legislative audits received most of the attention on Thursday. That was in part a matter of expediency. The reports were immediately available, and staff were ready to present them and respond to questions.
The first audit concluded Loughry and Ketchum drove state vehicles for personal use without properly claiming the perk as a taxable fringe benefit.
The second examined use of state vehicles by other justices and additional employees of the court.
The audit showed Justice Robin Davis had seven uses of a court vehicle where a destination was provided but no business purpose was.
The report found no particular issues with former Justice Brent Benjamin, Justice Beth Walker, current Chief Justice Margaret Workman or current Administrative Director Gary Johnson.
Most of the questions by delegates focused on the travel habits of Loughry and Davis.
In Davis’s seven uses of the vehicle that came under scrutiny, she was accompanied by the Court’s director of security, who drove.
One of those instances as a three-day swing that included two anti-truancy events a political fundraiser and, possibly, a political event. The political fundraiser part, as well as whatever expense would result from the time for the security director, is what is getting the attention.
During the trip Justice Davis charged no lodging to the state, and only charged $115 for meal expenses for the three days of travel.
Loughry used both a 2009 Lucerne and the 2012 LaCrosse, along with additional court vehicles, for multiple periods of undocumented use.
The Legislative Auditor questioned whether Loughry’s use of the state vehicles was truly for business purposes — or may have been for a mix of business and pleasure travel.
Auditors went over a calendar used by court officials to claim vehicles. Loughry reserved a car a total of 212 days from 2013 to 2016. Of those, 148 days had no destination or work purpose listed.
Many of Loughry’s reservations were in the months of December.
Auditors wrote, “Notably, Justice Loughry had a state vehicle for 27 consecutive days through the Christmas and New Year’s holidays from December 10, 2014, to January 5, 2015.
“The Supreme Court of Appeals was in recess during all the December dates, and no destination or substantiation is listed for any of these time frames. The Legislative Auditor is unable to find any purposes for which Justice Loughry used the vehicles during the December months.”
Loughry also rented vehicles during several trips out of state.
Auditors questioned whether Loughry’s mileage on the rented vehicles was in line with the stated business purpose of the travel.
“On many of these trips, there is a widely disproportionate number of miles recorded on the odometer reading section of the receipts, compared to the actual round-trip mileage from the airport to the hotel where Justice Loughry stayed,” the auditors wrote.
For example, on a trip to Montreal, Loughry stayed at a Hyatt Regency that was 13.6 miles from the airport. But, according to an Enterprise Rent-A-Car receipt, the car was driven 607 miles.
On a trip to Omaha, Nebraska, the distance between the airport and the hotel was 4 miles. Yet the rental vehicle was driven 475 miles.
Seven such trips cost the state $2,669.
“Based on this analysis,” the auditors concluded, “it appears possible that Justice Loughry, or a travel companion allowed to use rental cars, vacationed on the state’s dollar.”
the late afternoon turned to Justice Loughry’s possession of an antique desk dating back to the origins of the state Capitol at his home.
The antique desk was associated with famed architect Cass Gilbert from when the state Capitol was first built. A legislative audit valued the desk at $42,000.
The Legislative Auditor’s staff concluded Loughry may have violated the Ethics Act’s stipulations about using public office for private gain.
Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred testified that Loughry had used the desk when he was a clerk in the court and then had it moved to his home. Allred described receipts for moving companies that helped him move the desk.
Allred also described state employees helping Loughry move the desk out of his home and into a warehouse — while on the clock — after media reports focused on the whereabouts of the desk.
He said there were no apparent controls in place to keep track of Supreme Court or state property.
“In my 25 years here, I’m not sure I’ve come across an agency of this size that had a complete lack of inventory control,” Allred said.
The impeachment proceedings were expected to continue into Thursday evening and then pick up again on Friday. It’s possible the proceedings would also continue Saturday. A similar schedule was expected next week too.