Impeachment committee to independently weigh ethics of court’s working lunches

CHARLESTON — The vice chairman of a committee considering impeachment of state Supreme Court justices said its efforts are independent of a Judicial Investigations Commission conclusion that justices didn’t overstep their bounds by repeatedly ordering in lunch.

But the findings could influence the House Judiciary Committee, Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

“We take very seriously the findings of another investigative body. That’s partly what gave rise to these proceedings in the first instance,” Hanshaw said.

“I don’t want to downplay findings by another body. We take those very seriously and will do so again here.”

The House Judiciary Committee has been meeting over the past three weeks to consider impeachment against one or more justices. Its scope is much broader than the meals that were the focus of the Judicial Investigation Commission.

The meals could play a role as lawmakers decide whether individuals or the court as a whole has committed maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, neglect of duty or any high crime or misdemeanor.

The Judicial Investigation Commission, which leveled charges against Justice Allen Loughry early last month, released public conclusions that justices Margaret Workman, Robin Davis and Beth Walker have not crossed ethical lines through the practice of having working lunches at the court.

A news report earlier this year concluded the court spent $19,324 in public funds in 2016 and 2017 on meals for justices, clerks, administrators, security personnel and other staffers.

Over those two years, the court ordered out 108 times, buying a total of 1,141 lunches. Each instance cost about $179.

The state auditor’s transparency website shows that over the past year, the West Virginia court system as a whole — not just the Supreme Court — has spent $277,487.43 on hospitality expenses, mostly relating to food.

The Judicial Investigation Commission concluded that the working lunches that became routine for the court were meant to make the workday more efficient.

In recent years, justices were staying on the bench until oral arguments concluded and then going straight into decision conferences with lunch provided by the court.

During all-day administrative conferences, the court was also having working lunches.

And the court was providing lunch during those instances for other employees who had to remain at their posts completing work for the justices.

“The working lunches made the court run more efficiently and effectively on argument docket and administrative conference days,” the commission wrote in letters to Workman, Davis and Walker.

The commission did tell the justices they should have had a written policy. “By failing to do this, you unnecessarily opened the door to unfair public criticism of an otherwise appropriate method for conducting the business of the court,” the commission wrote.

Several advisory opinions of the separate West Virginia Ethics Commission in recent years have dealt with meals for public employees.

In an advisory opinion from March, a state agency manager asked about a reasonable cost for the reimbursement of meals consumed in the course of their public duties.

The Ethics Commission concluded that public officials or employees may seek reimbursement for a meal at a rate not exceeding those established by West Virginia travel rules.

But the commission advised agencies to review applicable laws to determine if there is express or implied authority for the meal expenditure. For example, the commission wrote in a footnote, there are specific circumstances under which the state auditor must refuse payment.

“Nothing in this opinion is granting express or implied authority to spend public funds for meals under the Ethics Act,” the Ethics Commission wrote.

In a 2012 advisory opinion, a sheriff asked about the appropriateness of using concealed weapons funds to purchase meals for official meetings.

Mostly that opinion underscored the concept that special funds are still public funds. Seen that way, the “Commission finds that there is nothing in this language which authorizes Sheriff’s Departments to use this money for meals for staff meetings when other public agencies are not permitted to do so.”

In another 2012 advisory opinion, a state licensing board asked under what circumstances it could purchase meals for its members and staff. The board’s long meetings were prompting orders from restaurants like Bob Evans. It paid with public funds.

“Based upon the facts presented, the Commission finds that it does not violate the Ethics Act for the Requester to provide a working meal to its members and any staff who are required to be present at the meeting as part of their job duties, when the meal is provided for the benefit of the Board, i.e. to accomplish its work,” the commission wrote.

“Here, the Commission finds that the meals are not being furnished with the intent of lavishing an unlawful benefit/compensation upon the Board Members, or any staff who are required to be present. Instead, they are being furnished for the convenience of the Board so that it may accomplish its mission more effectively and thereby serve the public.”

But the commission added that its advice should not be construed as granting unfettered authority to expend money for meals.

The Ethics Commission also advised state boards or agencies to check with the state Auditor to make sure it does not run afoul of any laws or regulations governing authorized expenditures.

Previous ArticleNext Article