CHARLESTON — Impeachment proceedings focused on the West Virginia Supreme Court began Thursday July 12, with Justice Menis Ketchum now out of the mix because of his retirement announcement this week.
That leaves much of the focus on suspended Justice Allen Loughry, who faces 22 federal counts.
As proceedings started in the House Chamber, 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 whole would remain relevant, despite the committee no longer needing to evaluate specific findings about Ketchum.
“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.
“We have an obligation to hold accountable the public officials that the public can’t hold accountable,” said Shott, referencing the 12-year terms of Supreme Court justices.
West Virginia 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 of misusing state resources and lying about it to investigators.
It started last September with 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 also surfaced over Loughry taking possession of an antique desk associated with famed architect Cass Gilbert from when the state Capitol was first built. Loughry brought the desk — valued at $42,000 — to his home in 2012.
Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred testified Thursday that Loughry used the desk when he was a clerk in the court and had it moved to his home. Allred described receipts for moving companies that helped Loughry relocate 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 desk’s whereabouts.
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.
Legislative Auditors concluded Loughry and Ketchum drove state vehicles for personal use without claiming the perk as a taxable benefit.
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.
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.
Loughry reserved a car a total of 212 days from 2013-’16. Of those, 148 days had no destination or work purpose listed.
Auditors noted that Justice Loughry had a state vehicle for 27 consecutive days through the Christmas and New Year’s holidays from Dec. 10, 2014, to Jan. 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 business trips out of state.
“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,” auditors wrote.
On a trip to Montreal, Loughry stayed at a Hyatt Regency located 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, Neb., 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,” auditors concluded, “it appears possible that Justice Loughry, or a travel companion allowed to use rental cars, vacationed on the state’s dollar.”
Impeachment proceedings were expected to continue Friday July 13.