Couched in Extravagance: West Virginia Lawmakers Tour High Court’s Lavish Offices
CHARLESTON — After several delays, including an effort by court officials to block the press, the West Virginia House Judiciary Committee finally toured the extensive renovations to several Supreme Court of Appeal justices’ offices with media in tow.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee split into two groups Monday morning to tour the offices of the Supreme Court. The tour groups were joined by a pool photographer, videographer and a representative of print and radio media.
The tour lasted about 40 minutes. It included the offices of each of the five Supreme Court justices, plus several administrative offices.
Supreme Court justices have come under fire during the impeachment hearings on the costs of renovating and furnishing their offices. The committee is tasked with investigating the remaining justices for impeachable offenses.
The court spent $1.5 million on renovations and improvements to justices’ offices, including $500,678 in renovations to Justice Robin Davis’ office, and $363,013 in renovations to suspended Justice Allen Loughry’s office.
“It’s probably the nicest part of the Capitol, that’s for sure, but what stood out to me was that every office was personalized,” said Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio. “It certainly exceeds any expectations the public would have on office renovations.
“The numbers have been astronomical and we’re still trying to figure out how it is justified,” Fluharty said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact they’re not properly bid out. They didn’t have any competitive scenarios where these contractors were coming in giving competitive prices. You essentially had one deal where these prices were paid and they’re extravagant.”
Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, was also part of the tour Monday. His impressions of the office renovations differed from Fluharty’s.
“Overall it was very stately,” Fast said. “I think overall it was in keeping with the nice decor that we have in this historic building. Some of the offices appeared to be maybe extravagant I would say. If you analyze the costs with the numbers we have seen, you can tell those differences. Otherwise it’s a very functional, nice piece to the West Virginia State Capitol.”
One of the most revealing sights along the tour was in a hallway in the court’s common area — a wall with framed, official portraits of the justices.
Justice Menis Ketchum’s space is blank because he is no longer on the court. Loughry’s portrait is still there because he is suspended but not yet off the court.
The $32,000 Couch
Loughry’s office renovations came to the attention of the public last fall when media reports detailed the work and furnishings. The work included $7,500 for a wooden inlaid floor of the State of West Virginia, with Tucker County — Loughry’s home county — in blue granite. It also included a $32,000 suede couch.
“It looks like a regular couch to me,” said Joe Altizer, counsel for the House Democrats.
Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, who was in the second group, went so far as to pull out measuring tape to get the couch’s dimensions.
When the rest of the group left the office, Fast returned to look at the professionally framed items on Loughry’s wall, including a long horizontal photograph of his swearing-in ceremony.
During Monday morning’s tour, lawmakers spent the most time in Loughry’s office, inspecting the inlaid floor, sitting on the couch and touching the pillows.
“It is beautiful,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, referring to the floor.
“The inlay obviously stands out as something that was very meticulous and personalized to the point of extravagant cost,” Fluharty said. “I think it goes to the bigger picture here. We’re electing these people to 12-year terms and they believe it’s a lifetime. They decided to make these offices truly their own instead of really being a public office. Every single one had a distinct feel and was very personalized.”
Loughry is suspended without pay pending the outcome of a 23-count federal indictment and a 32-count complaint by the state Judicial Investigation Commission. The JIC complaint is on hold while Loughry awaits trial. He pleaded not guilty last month to the federal charges, which include obstruction of justice, witness tampering and lying to FBI agents.
‘A Hundred Years
The next stop was Justice Margaret Workman’s office, which was the only one where a justice was there to greet the delegates. The renovations to her office cost the least of any delegates, $111,035.19.
Workman told delegates, “If you all have any questions, just ask.”
The justice sat behind her desk and pointed out that the wooden floor and a wooden cabinet were the only items renovated with taxpayer dollars.
“Where I spent the money that I spent was on permanent fixtures, all the built in cabinets, shelving and flooring that will be here a hundred years from now,” Workman said.
In an interview with a media pool representative during the tour, Workman elaborated.
She spoke in part about an initial disagreement over the ground rules for the tour, including whether media could accompany delegates.
“I welcome anybody who wants to come in and see these offices,” Workman said. “We have never closed these offices off to the press. Kennie Bass was here and took pictures months and months ago. But Art Angus our security guy really wants the layout not be published.”
“With this day and age, I think we’re aware of shooters and possible dangers.”
She said, “Originally, I think our staff had talked with Chairman Shott and they had agreed it wasn’t a public meeting and there really wasn’t any controversy. However, I know some of the members had said it should be open. We had no objection to that, except for anything related to security.”
There was also a letter from the court to the judiciary committee near the beginning of the impeachment proceedings a few weeks ago, calling the hearings a “fishing expedition” because of the broad scope.
Workman stood by some of the concerns raised in that letter.
“The concern was we just wanted to know what the rules of the proceeding were going to be,” she said. “On one hand, it’s been likened to the way a grand jury functions and yet if it were like a grand jury the members wouldn’t be going on talk radio or serving dinner to a witness.”
That last remark was about former Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury, who testified all day and into the dinner hour, accepting an invitation to eat fried chicken that had been prepared by Chairman Shott’s wife and offered to all the delegates and staff.
“We need to get information from all sides, not just a side with an ax to grind,” Workman said.
As the interview concluded, Workman added, “Just remember everything in here belongs to me but that was what cost a few dollars as well as the floor.
“And those things will be here a few hundred years from now,” she said, pointing at the wood cabinets.
The third stop for the tour was Justice Beth Walker’s office. This was the shortest visit, and delegates said little as they passed through.
The renovation to that office cost $130,654.
The office had previously been occupied by Justice Brent Benjamin. The office was renovated during his term at a cost of $264,000.
Evidence of Whimsy
The next visit was to Davis’ office, which had been the most expensive renovation.
The office features thick glass shelves with Blenko glass on top of some of the cabinets. There were two Edward Fields floor rubs valued at $28,000. There is also a closet with a circular, glass door.
It also has a high-backed desk chair valued at $8,000 that Davis described as helpful to relieve arthritis pain. Fleischauer sat in the chair and concluded that it is comfortable.
There was also a little evidence of whimsy. One of the few items on Davis’ desk, aside from a stapler, was a decision-making device which would randomly point to options such as “pass the buck,” “no,” “tomorrow” or “sit on it.”
Fleischauer looked at a white couch, low to the ground, and said, “I wouldn’t want to sit on that one.” But then she did, confirming that it was awfully low to the floor.
The visit to Ketchum’s office showed just a little bit of remaining evidence that he had occupied it. That office was renovated at a cost of $171,838.33.
There was little evidence of Ketchum’s presence in the office since he has vacated it.
There were, however, some personal framed items — including newspaper clippings from Ketchum’s time on the court, plus some keepsakes from Marshall University and Huntington — that were still on the wall.
The framing was done with public funds — one of the subjects of the impeachment hearings — so Ketchum hasn’t been able to take home his personal items inside the frames.
Ketchum’s office also had the most “Cass Gilbert” furniture — a reference to the Capitol architect. He had a table and two desks associated with Cass Gilbert.
Following the Money
Loughry and justices Davis, Workman and Walker are all being investigated by the House Judiciary Committee. Delegates on the committee will consider articles of impeachment to bring against one or more justice and present to the full House and Senate.
Monday’s tour was just part of the many exhibits considered by the committee over the past five weeks. Last week, Democratic members of the committee demanded that articles of impeachment be considered for Loughry first. Some members of the committee think more time is needed before considering articles.
“I don’t think a tour is going to give you a conclusion, but I think once we weigh all the evidence, certainly Justice Loughry stands out and we should act right now on him,” Fluharty said. “We’re going to have to continue our investigation into the other justices, but there is no reason we shouldn’t move forward with Justice Loughry right now.”
“That is why we need more information,” Fast said. “There was a lot of money put into these offices there is no doubt. We’ve seen the numbers and now we’ve seen the structure and we’ve seen the work.
“In addition to that, a lot of the work was slated as restoration versus just renovation,” said Fast. “There is a big difference there. If you’re restoring something that’s just deteriorated, and to make it as stately as this Capitol is as a whole, that’s going to take a lot of money. If you’re simply just renovating for your own personal tastes, that’s a difference as well.”
After the tour, the committee heard testimony from Sue Racer-Troy, the finance director for the court. The committee later met in executive session to review the evidence at hand and decide to continue its investigation or move forward with articles of impeachment. The committee is expected to meet again this morning.
Steven Allen Adams contributed to this report.