Former High Court administrator testifies
CHARLESTON –The fired administrator for West Virginia’s highest court delved into what he said were the motivations of the chief justice who sacked him.
Steve Canterbury, who was hired in 2006 as administrator for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, took the stand on the sixth day of impeachment hearings by the House Judiciary Committee Thursday.
Previously serving as executive director of the Regional Jail Authority, Canterbury served as court administrator for 11 years until he was fired by then-Chief Justice Allen Loughry in January 2017.
Much of Thursday’s questioning by the committee’s counsel and committee members focused on Canterbury’s relationship with Loughry and his firing by Loughry and the court. Canterbury said he found out he was to be fired when he was called up to the supreme court on Jan. 4.
“I didn’t expect what I found out,” Canterbury said from the witness stand. “I could tell there was a problem because there was emotion on everyone’s faces. Chief Justice Loughry said ‘you’re being terminated from your will-and-pleasure position.'”
When offered the chance to resign, Canterbury chose to be fired in order to file for unemployment benefits, but also asked the justices to let him stay on as administrator due to having leadership positions on several national boards. The justices declined, as well as denied Canterbury a few days to retrieve his belongings from his office, he said.
“That’s when I said ‘every cloud has a silver lining. At least I won’t have to work for a Simulacrum (unsubstantial) chief like you,'” Canterbury said to Loughry. “He said ‘what’s the word mean,’ and I said look it up.”
Justices Loughry, Beth Walker — who was elected in 2016 after defeating former Justice Brent Benjamin — and Margaret Workman voted to fire Canterbury. In frustration, Canterbury admitted he thought out loud while moving out his belongings about going to the press.
Testimony turned to memos between Canterbury and Justice Robin Davis regarding vehicle usage by justices. Davis sent multiple memos in August 2016 to Canterbury and other court staff asking about how and why the court’s fleet of vehicles were used by justices. Davis raised the concerns due to reports in the media about state vehicle use by other agencies.
“A series of recent newspaper articles and audits show very clearly that members of the Legislature, the Auditor’s Office, and the state newspapers are exposing and questioning the use of vehicles by high-ranking administrators and are also focusing on improper expenditures and reimbursements from high-ranking officials in state government,” Davis wrote.
Data compiled by court staff for Davis showed that Loughry used state vehicles multiple times without listing destinations. These memos angered Loughry, Canterbury testified. According to a memo to justices Menis Ketchum, Workman, and Benjamin on Aug. 26, Loughry pushed back against Davis’ inquiries.
According to the Loughry memo, he accused Davis of using $11,360.03 for a private event at her home for circuit court judges and their families. In a statement Monday, the state Judicial Investigation Commission — made up of judges appointed by the justices — cleared Davis of any wrongdoing for hosting these events.
“…Her memoranda are undoubtedly designed to elicit planned responses from Mr. Canterbury in their attempt to impugn my character,” Loughry wrote in his memo. “I refuse, however, to be bullied for raising issues of the clearly improper expenditure of state funds.”
Shortly after these memos, the justices voted to not mandatorily disclose destinations when taking state vehicles.
Loughry, Ketchum and Workman voted in the majority, with Davis and Benjamin voting to allow disclosure.
“It was an emotional discussion,” Canterbury said of that meeting. “The presumption was if they decided they needed a car, it must be for appropriate purposes.”
Questions shifted to the construction costs of renovating the offices of the justices. Canterbury said the original renovation work started in 2008 with needed updates, such as electrical work and new plumbing. But as justices requested renovations to their offices, the requests became more extravagant, culminating with the $363,000 price tag for Loughry’s office, Canterbury said.
Loughry stated frequently — including under oath to the House Finance Committee earlier this year — that he was not involved in the renovations to his office, but documents subpoenaed by the committee show that Loughry was reportedly involved, including sketching out the wood inlaid floor cut out of the State of West Virginia. Tucker County — Loughry’s home county — was made of blue granite.
“A couple of times daily (Loughry) would check in and ask questions and be very specific about his displeasure about some things,” Canterbury said. “He was very involved, and he was more involved than any other justice by a long shot.”
Canterbury said his relationship with Loughry was always rocky, confronting Loughry about sexual harassment allegations when he was a clerk for former Justice Spike Maynard. Two years after Loughry was elected to the court in 2012, Canterbury said he was asked to resign then by Loughry. He refused, and Loughry would not speak to him after that, he said.
“The transformation in Justice Loughry’s character from being a law clerk to a justice was — in a word, extraordinary,” Canterbury said. “It was awkward interacting with him.”
Loughry is facing a 23-count federal indictment. He also faces a 32-count JIC complaint, which is on hold pending the outcome of the federal charges. Loughry was suspended without pay from the court.
Also Thursday, Canterbury testified that four individuals who previously did work on Workman’s reelection campaign were hired by the court in various capacities.
Canterbury said one of those employees — John Pritt — wasn’t working out and he had told Workman that Pritt would need to be let go. Canterbury testified that Workman allegedly hinted that his job might be in jeopardy unless they found a job in the court for Pritt to do. The JIC also cleared Workman of wrongdoing in the hiring of Pritt in a letter released Monday.
Del. Rodney Miller, D-Boone, asked Canterbury if the justices think they’re above the law.
“No. I think they think they say what the law is,” Canterbury said. “That doesn’t mean they’re above it, but they say what it is.”
Today, the committee will look at timelines of the construction for supreme court offices, as well as look at more information on the court’s use of working lunches.