Impeachment proceedings not to be taken lightly

By Hoppy Kercheval

The West Virginia House of Delegates voted unanimously to begin impeachment proceedings against indicted state Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry.

House Resolution 201 is clearly aimed at Loughry, since he is facing a 22-count federal indictment charging him with padding his expense account, using a state car for private purposes, lying to investigators and influencing a potential witness.

However, the resolution also authorizes the House to consider impeachment against any of the five Justices if the Judiciary Committee investigation finds evidence of “maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, or high crimes or misdemeanors.”

If the House votes to impeach following an investigation, the Senate will conduct the trial to determine whether an individual shall be removed from office. West Virginia used this provision of the state Constitution sparingly over the years.

Here is a brief (and unofficial) history based on a 1989 report by former House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Hatcher, Justice Loughry’s book about political corruption in West Virginia (the irony is duly noted), legislative records and newspaper articles.

The earliest record of impeachment in the state occurred in 1875, when state Treasurer John Burdette was charged with taking kickbacks from banks where he deposited the state’s money. Auditor Edward Bennett was accused of failing to file reports that would have exposed the deal.

The House of Delegates impeached both men. The Senate convicted Burdette and he was removed from office. Bennett was acquitted when the Senate failed to get the two-thirds vote necessary to convict him on any of the six counts against him.

Impeachment proceedings were brought against Monongalia County Circuit Court Judge George C. Sturgiss in 1919. The House Judiciary Committee accused him of corruption. However the full House voted 55-28 not to impeach the judge.

State Auditor John C. Bond got in trouble in 1926, when he was discovered handing out state checks to friends and family members, while skimming off some tax dollars for himself. The House of Delegates impeached Bond the following year.

He resigned just before going to trial in the Senate. The Charleston Daily Mail reported, “Senators generally appeared relieved over the decision. A number of them expressed the view that a long trial had been avoided and their time had been saved for important legislative matters.”

In 1975, the House of Delegates took up an impeachment resolution against state Department of Mines Director John Ashcraft. According to Hatcher’s history, the House Judiciary Committee “investigated the matter and recommended to the House that no further action be taken.”

The state’s most recent impeachment proceeding is also the most famous. In March 1989, the House brought 17 articles of impeachment against State Treasurer A. James Manchin over the Consolidated Investment Fund scandal.

The fund lost $279 million during his tenure and his Assistant Treasurer, Arnold Margolin, later pleaded guilty to lying to cover up the losses. Manchin resigned just as his trial was about to begin in the Senate.

And now West Virginia is on course for just the seventh impeachment proceeding in the state’s history. The infrequency of this constitutional provision demonstrates that the forced removal from office of a duly elected or appointed public official is not to be taken lightly.

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

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