Restoring public trust in court will be tough case

By Hoppy Kercheval

A state government audit has produced more evidence of questionable spending by the West Virginia Supreme Court.

The new report by the legislative auditor on vehicle use by Justices Allen Loughry and Menis Ketchum, combined with earlier media reports about court spending, “show a complete lack of regard for the principles of fiscal prudence and responsibility.”

Perhaps more troubling is the finding that the court did “not follow federal and state tax laws” for reporting use of the vehicles as a taxable benefit, even though there is “substantial evidence” that the court knew how to properly calculate the tax liability of that fringe benefit.

Specifically, here’s what the audit found:

Justice Loughry used a state vehicle for long stretches during the Christmas holidays, from 2013 through 2016, when the court was not in session.

“The Legislative Auditor is unable to find any purposes for which Loughry used the vehicles during the December months.”

The audit says the court questioned Loughry about whether the vehicle use was for business.

“His position was that once he said he was traveling on state business, that should be the end of any inquiry.”

Loughry also questioned whether state vehicle use by Justices Robin Davis and Brent Benjamin was for business.

The legislative auditor concludes that Loughry rented cars with state money for personal use.

The auditors reached that determination by noting significant differences in the miles between the airport and hotel for business trips and the actual miles driven. For example, the round trip distance between the airport and hotel in Montreal was 27 miles, but there were

607 miles on the rental car receipt.

“Seven instances were found that Justice Loughry rented vehicles with mileage driven during out-of-state trips which appear to be for purely personal reasons,” the audit said.

Loughry has challenged the findings of the audit. “I disagree with the factual and legal assumptions made, the standards and definitions applied, and the conclusions ultimately reached in the draft audit report,” he wrote in a memo.

Justice Ketchum used a state vehicle for four years to commute between his home in Huntington and the court offices in Charleston and paid for all the gas with a state fuel card. He also drove the state car on five golf trips to Virginia.

Ketchum stopped using the state car to commute to work in 2016. He has also reimbursed the state for the vehicle use on the golf trips and has had his W-2 forms retroactively updated to reflect the benefit of state vehicle use.

There’s more in the report and you can read it online at the address above.

The travel spending revelations come on top of earlier reports about excessive spending by the Justices for office renovations — the $32,000 couch and $7,500 wooden inlaid floor in Loughry’s office, $500,000 office renovation and $28,000 rugs in Justice Davis’s office, and $130,000 upgrade of Justice Beth Walker’s chambers just seven years after they were redone.

New Chief Justice Margaret Workman told lawmakers Monday that the court is putting new travel policies in place and generally cleaning up its act.

“We were busy being judges and not perhaps paying enough attention to administrative things,” she said. “That has changed. Our policies going forward are going to be much tighter.”

Well, given that taxpayers of a poor state have been paying for palatial office furnishings and footing the bill for personal travel, that’s the least the court can do to get spending under control.

However, the profligate spending and ignorance of best practices have caused significant damage to the integrity of the court. Restoring the public trust will be the biggest job of all.

To read the report online go to: documentcloud.org/documents/4438388-Supreme-Court-of-Appeals-4-15-18.html 

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.

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