A stunning corruption probe into West Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals has led to 14 articles of impeachment against its four sitting members.
The West Virginia House of Delegates Judiciary Committee adopted the articles on Tuesday, highlighting unchecked spending that included nearly $4 million in renovations to the justices’ chambers and the use of public vehicles and credit cards.
A fifth justice, Menis Ketchum, has already resigned. The other four have refused to do so, leaving the fate of the state’s highest court in question.
When did this all begin?
Charleston’s WCHS first uncovered the extravagant spending in November 2017, noting that Justice Allen Loughry’s chambers contained a $32,000 sofa and $1,700 in throw pillows paid for with taxpayer money. Loughry initially said a former administrative director for the court procured the items, but the director clarified that the purchases were ultimately Loughry’s decision.
Loughry faced an impeachment resolution in February over the renovations. He was suspended on June 8 and later hit with a 22-count federal indictment, but has refused to resign, despite calls from West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R).
What happens next?
The West Virginia House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against the four sitting justices this week. The full House will consider them next week, and if the majority votes to adopt them, the articles will advance to the Senate for review, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
If at least two-thirds of the Senate’s elected members vote to adopt the articles, an impeachment trial will be set up to determine whether the justices are guilty of the presented offenses. Any justice found guilty would be removed from the bench and banned from seeking public office in the state.
Who might replace them?
Under state law, if a justice with more than two years left in their term resigns or is removed from office at least 84 days before the next general election, the governor will appoint an interim judge until a new judge can be elected. But it’s unlikely the four remaining justices will leave by Aug. 14, which is 84 days prior to the state’s general election in November.
The more likely scenario is that the judges won’t resign by Aug. 14, so whoever the governor appoints to replace them will remain in power until at least May 2020, when the next special election can take place, according to the Gazette-Mail.
However, voters will be able to replace Ketchum in November, since his resignation came before the August deadline.
Why is their replacement raising concerns?
If the four judges are impeached, the governor will ultimately select their replacements, raising concerns that the state’s top judicial branch may lean overwhelmingly to the right.
West Virginia Delegate Mike Pushkin, a Democrat, attempted to block Justice from handpicking Loughry’s replacement by introducing an impeachment inquiry in February so that there would be ample time for his removal before the August deadline. Pushkin and other Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee have suggested that Republicans have purposely dragged out impeachment efforts to avoid the timely election of the judges’ successors.
“Here we are 6 months after I filed my resolution, more than a month after we convened this impeachment proceeding, and nothing has happened,” Pushkin said in a statement. “Our concern always was that the House Republican Leadership would drag their feet, and try to pack the court with appointed Justices, rather than having a Court composed of Justices voted on by our citizens. It turns out our fears were justified.”
Who are the justices?
Justice Allen Loughry
Loughry, who was elected to the court in November of 2012 and formerly served as the chief justice, is the subject of eight articles of impeachment. (Some of the same articles apply to multiple justices.)
In June, he was suspended without pay after being indicted by a federal grand jury on nearly two dozen federal counts that included numerous fraud, false statements and witness tampering offenses.
The allegations include using a government vehicle for personal use and submitting mileage claims for reimbursement, as well as taking home a historical piece of furniture from the courthouse for personal use. Like the other four justices, he is also accused of spending thousands of dollars on renovations to his chambers.
According to WCHS-TV, the $363,000 that went into Loughry’s office renovations included a $32,000 sectional sofa and a wooden map of West Virginia inlaid in his chamber’s floor. Each county is cut from a different type of wood. His home county is granite.
Loughry’s 22-count indictment is made up of 16 counts of mail fraud, which carry a penalty of up to 20 years each; two counts of wire fraud, which carry a penalty of up to 20 years each; three counts of making false statements to a federal agent, which carry a penalty of up to 5 years each; and one count of witness tampering, which carries a penalty of up to 20 years.
If convicted on all counts in the indictment, he faces a possible sentence of up to 395 years in prison, a fine of $5.5 million and a term of supervised release of up to 3 years.
Loughry has pleaded not guilty to the charges and has refused to resign. His trial date is set for Oct. 2.
Prior to joining the state’s highest court, Loughry was a reporter. In 2006, he published a book about West Virginia’s history of political corruption, titled Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide.
Chief Justice Margaret Workman
Workman, who was elected in November 2008 and replaced Loughry as chief justice in 2017, is the subject of four articles of impeachment. The articles highlight $111,035 in renovations to her chambers, according to WCHS-TV. Her purchases reportedly included an $8,892 sofa that was paid for with state money.
Justice Robin Jean Davis
Her chambers reportedly underwent the most expensive renovations, costing $500,278.
Justice Beth Walker
Walker, who was elected to the court in May 2016, is the subject of two articles of impeachment. Her chamber reportedly underwent $131,000 in renovations.
Former Justice Menis Ketchum
Ketchum, who was elected to a 12-year term in 2008, retired in late July, removing himself from the impeachment proceedings.
Three days after announcing his retirement, he was charged with one criminal count of federal wire fraud and accused of using state-owned vehicles and fuel cards for personal use.
He has agreed to plead guilty to the charge later this month as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported Wednesday. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
As of Wednesday, the four remaining justices have not released statements regarding the articles of impeachment, a public information officer for the courthouse told HuffPost.