Supreme Court Impeachment Proceedings in West Virginia Not So Peachy
Last week we wrapped up week two of the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation into the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and the high court is not making things easier.
It all started last week with a letter from Barbara Allen, the interim administrator for the court. She replaced Gary Johnson, Justice Allen Loughry’s replacement for fired administrator Steve Canterbury. Johnson jumped ship last month and somehow ended up at the renamed-and-consolidated Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation as inspector general.
In that letter, which I reported last week, Allen accused the committee of going on a “fishing expedition,” accused the committee of violating the separation of powers between the three branches of government, questioned the need to provide more information or interview court staff, and balked at the committee’s transparency in live-streaming the hearings to the public.
Even those who know and like Allen — and who believe she was just defending the court’s staff, who have had to deal with multiple investigations and interviews and who are likely stressed — say the letter was in poor taste. Some, however, think Allen sent the letter when it seemed the committee’s questioning was focused too much on Chief Justice Margaret Workman and Justice Robin Davis.
To continue to add to the court’s tone-deaf nature, members of the media were made aware Thursday afternoon that we would not be allowed to attend a tour of the court’s offices – including the renovated and expensive renovations of the justices’ offices.
Several members of the press, including this reporter, signed onto an email from West Virginia MetroNews reporter Brad McElhinny asking the court to reconsider. West Virginia Press Association Director Don Smith even proposed a press pool, where a report, a photographer, and videography be allowed on tour and provide images and reports to the rest of the press.
Friday morning, the press received official word from the court: “The House Judiciary Committee tour of the Supreme Court offices is an on-site inspection. As such, this site inspection is not a ‘meeting’ as defined under W. Va. Code 6-9A-2(5)(B) of the Open Governmental Meetings Act.”
“The Committee members will be instructed that the Supreme Court will not allow photography or video during the tour, and that if afterward they believe pictures or videos are necessary, Chairman John Shott and the Committee’s photographer will contact Interim Court Administrator Barbara Allen.”
Keep in mind, that section of state code doesn’t prohibit the press from being allowed to participate. It only gives the court authority to close the tour to the press. But considering the court’s credibility with the press is at near zero, they would do well to be as transparent as possible.
This is the same court that sent their public information officer, Jennifer Bundy, out to lie to two reporters by email, telling them the court had a policy for justices using state-owned furniture for home offices. She testified Thursday that Loughry told her to say that (though as a former press secretary myself, I would have asked for the language of the policy, because I would have known the next logical question from a reporter would be “can I see the policy”).
This is the same court that turned its security staff — charged with protecting the justices from threats — into movers. The court’s security personnel testified to helping Loughry move a couch — abandoned by former Justice Joe Albright and left to the court — and a desk originally purchased by Capitol architect Cass Gilbert. They had to do it separately, as a neighbor of Loughry’s had photographed them moving the couch. They waited to move the desk until the neighbor was gone, though a TV news van followed them to the court’s warehouse.
Those are just the two biggest examples of trying to skirt media transparency. You’d think the new management of the court would learn some lessons from the actions of the previous administration. The attitude from Allen and I presume the remainder of the justices — is troubling.
Thankfully, the committee voted to delay their court tour until next week in solidarity with the banned media. That should give the press time to persuade the court of its wrongheadedness on preventing media from coming along. I’ll keep you posted.
At the end of this investigation, this committee might submit articles of impeachment against one or more justices to the full House of Delegates, and from there the Senate will convene as a jury. Yet, it feels like we’re already at the trial stage now.
I understand being thorough, and if you’re going to come up with articles of impeachment, you certainly want the Senate to be able to convict. But the House Judiciary Committee isn’t supposed to be trying the case. Much like an episode of “Law & Order,” the House is supposed to be the detectives, gathering the evidence.
As others have pointed out, they already have overwhelming evidence for one justice: Allen Loughry. A 23-count federal indictment, a 32-count Judicial Investigation Commission complaint, and at least two legislative audits. Not to mention the reporting of WCHS-TV reporter Kennie Bass, who broke the first story on Loughry’s office spending back in the fall of 2017.
There is even audio, which the committee listened to Friday, of Loughry lying under oath to the House Finance Committee during budget hearings at the start of the 2018 legislative session.
Obviously, the committee has a broad mandate of investigating the court. I think it can be argued there is a culture at the court which gave the justices the freedom to spend freely without accountability and oversight. Whether the committee finds information on the remaining justices that rises to the level of impeachment remains to be seen.
But I would think that the committee could go ahead and present articles of impeachment for Loughry and continue to meet and look into other justices. But it sounds like there is further testimony regarding actions by Loughry. We also still need to hear from Canterbury, which will happen next week.