Democrats’ Patience Wears Thin on West Virginia High Court Probe

CHARLESTON — Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee are ready to move on articles of impeachment on the only justice left on the bench under federal indictment.

In a press release Wednesday morning, the minority members of the committee said there was enough evidence to present articles of impeachment against Justice Allen Loughry. The minority plans to present a draft resolution with the impeachment articles at the committee’s next meeting Monday.

“Enough is enough,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, the minority chair for the committee. “We have been in special session looking at this for over five weeks and the evidence we have seen on Justice Loughry just confirms what was already found in three prior investigations.”

The draft resolution the committee’s minority members plan to present includes eight articles of impeachment. The draft articles are focused on Loughry’s alleged abuse of state vehicles, fuel cards, lying under oath to the House Finance Committee during the 2018 legislative session, taking a historic desk and couch donated to the court, and using court computers at his home for family use.

“This whole process has become very political and the judicial branch should always operate immune from political shenanigans,” said Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, the committee’s minority vice-chair. “We have eight articles of impeachment — any one is sufficient for Justice Loughry’s removal.”

Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, the committee’s chairman, said he was taken by surprise by the Wednesday morning press release by committee Democrats.

In a phone call Wednesday morning, Shott was reluctant to comment on the contents of the release, but he wasn’t happy.

Obviously, they did it without talking to me, which is normally the courteous thing to do,” Shott said. “Apparently, they’ve decided to act unilaterally as opposed to a bipartisan manner, and that’s a shame.”

The House Judiciary Committee has met every Thursday and Friday since July 12, reviewing evidence and interviewing witnesses. Gov. Jim Justice called the Legislature into special session June 26 to start the impeachment process, focused on the justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

The catalyst for the impeachment hearings was the federal indictment of Loughry. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia filed a 23-count indictment against Loughry, including charges of witness tampering, obstruction of justice, and lying to federal investigators.

The indictment alleges that Loughry misused state vehicles and fuel cards for personal use, falsely claimed mileage for trips, took a historic desk from the Capitol for use at his home, made false statements to FBI agents, and attempted to influence the testimony of a supreme court employee. A 32-count complaint by the state Judicial Investigation Commission and several legislative audits also corroborate these charges.

Loughry has maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty to the federal indictment. Former Justice Menis Ketchum, on the other hand, has been accused of similar crimes. The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday a plea deal with Ketchum, who was charged in an information with using state vehicles and fuel cards for golf trip to Virginia. He resigned July 27.

“Former Justice Ketchum has not only resigned, but he’s agreed to plead guilty to federal charges with the United States Attorney,” Fleischauer said. “Despite a 23-count indictment, Justice Loughry doesn’t appear willing to do the same.”

Some Democratic members of the committee believe the slow pace of the impeachment hearings is on purpose in order to get past the Aug. 14 deadline.

If Loughry, or any justice, is impeached and removed from office before Aug. 14, it will trigger a special election in November to fill the remainder of the unexpired term. Potential candidates interested in Ketchum’s term — which is up in 2020 — can file between Aug. 6 and Aug. 21 to run in that special election. But if a justice is removed after Aug. 14, there wouldn’t be a special election to fill the unexpired term until the primary election in 2020.

“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,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha. “It turns out our fears were justified.”

A resolution approved June 26 by the House gives Shott the authority to establish rules of procedure for the committee’s impeachment process. In Article 8 of the rules of procedure, Shott has the power to reject all motions to issue articles of impeachment “until counsel for the committee has informed the chair that presentation of all evidence regarding the subject against whom the proposed articles are addressed has been completed.”

Shott said the committee is still working. When the committee returns Monday, there are plans to tour the Supreme Court offices to view renovations and improvements. Justices have come under fire for extravagant expenses on office improvements during committee testimony.

The committee also is still awaiting documents from the commission on investigations conducted on justices Margaret Workman, Robin Davis and Beth Walker. The commission closed investigations on all three justices regarding thousands of dollars spent on working lunches catered by high-end restaurants in Charleston.

The commission cleared Davis on charges of using taxpayer dollars for private parties at her home for circuit judges, and traveling in a state vehicle with court security staff from a court event in Wheeling to a political fundraiser in Parkersburg. Workman was also cleared by the commission in her hiring of campaign staff as consultants to the court.

Shott said the committee will likely hear testimony next week from Workman, who is the current chief justice of the court. Also Kelly Loughry, wife of Justice Loughry, is slated to testify regarding the moving of state furniture in and out of their home, as well as the family’s use of court computers.

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