Former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Menis Ketchum availed himself of what he must have believed was one of the perks of the position—using a state vehicle for his private trips, and filling up the gas tank on the state credit card.
As public corruption goes, Ketchum’s errors, whether of omission or commission, may not appear as though they rise to the level of a federal case. U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart addressed that yesterday when he announced that Ketchum had agreed to plead guilty to a felony wire fraud charge.
“There is no such thing as a little bit of public corruption,” Stuart said. “The people of West Virginia have worked too hard and too long to tolerate misconduct that strikes at the very heart of the public’s trust of their elected officials.”
The federal charge against Ketchum, and the limited information released by the U.S. Attorney’s office, cannot be viewed in a vacuum. There is much more that must be parsed out.
This is about a lot more than a gas card.
First, Stuart said the charge “sets forth a pattern of wrongdoing.” That comment, along with the decision by Ketchum to take a plea, suggests the 75-year-old lawyer faced even more legal problems had he decided to fight.
Second, Ketchum was named in an information, meaning he gave up his right to have his case heard by a grand jury. An information usually suggests that the defendant is cooperating with any ongoing investigation.
Third, Stuart said several times during the press conference, and then repeated in an interview on Talkline, that the investigation into the state Supreme Court is progressing. He said his office is “One step closer for us to be able to say to the public in West Virginia that you can rely confidently on the Supreme Court of West Virginia.”
Fourth, Ketchum faces up to 20 years in prison, but it is highly unlikely he will get any serious jail time. Yes, the sentencing judge will be bound by a list of guidelines, but Ketchum has a series of mitigating circumstances that will work in his favor, including the small dollar amount involved in the fraud and his cooperation, that should spare him on sentencing day.
Contrast that with suspended state Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry who is fighting a 23 count federal indictment alleging fraud over his spending and vehicle use while in office and lying to investigators. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
The message to anyone under investigation is clear—we can do this the easy way or we do this the hard way. Clearly Stuart is on a mission. “The Court must have the confidence of the public,” he said Tuesday.
Stuart has given every indication that his office has more work to do on its Supreme Court investigation before that confidence can be restored.