State Supreme Court probe concludes
CHARLESTON — An investigation into the state Supreme Court justices has concluded, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia said on Thursday.
“Absent new information or new allegations of impropriety or illegality, based on the information we have investigated and reviewed, we are hopeful that the period of uncertainty and taint of West Virginian’s highest court is over,” U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has been looking into the Supreme Court since former Chief Justice Allen Loughry called the office in October 2017 and asked federal investigators to look at spending irregularities at the court. More than 16 months later, Loughry was serving a two-year sentence after being convicted of 11 federal charges, including wire fraud and lying to investigators.
Former justice Menis Ketchum was sentenced to three years of probation March 6 after pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud. Ketchum admitted to taking a court-owned vehicle and using a state fuel card on a personal golf outing to Virginia.
“Although necessary on behalf of the people of West Virginia and in defense of the rule of law, the indictment and conviction of former Chief Justice Allen Loughry and the information and conviction of former Justice Menis Ketchum brought me no personal pleasure,” Stuart said. “Rather, my satisfaction is that my office was able to play a significant role in restoring the confidence of the people of West Virginia in the West Virginia Supreme Court.”
Loughry’s charges and conviction stem from his use of court-owned vehicles for personal use and unofficial business. He took a state vehicle to an out-of-state conference using a state fuel card for gasoline while claiming a mileage reimbursement and not reimbursing the state. He also took court vehicles for multiple personal trips to his hometown in Tucker County and to book signings at the Greenbrier Resort, using a state fuel card to fill up.
During a March 2018 interview by federal investigators, Loughry lied about his use of state vehicles, claiming he never used a state vehicle for personal use. He also lied about his knowledge of an antique desk purchased by Cass Gilbert, architect of the State Capitol Building, that Loughry had delivered to his home for personal use.
The indictment of Loughry was the catalyst that started an impeachment investigation of the entire court by the House of Delegates starting in June. Ketchum announced his resignation shortly before the start of this investigation and by July had agreed to a plea deal with federal authorities.
By August, the remaining Justices Loughry, Margaret Workman, Robin Davis and Beth Walker had been impeached on 11 articles stemming from waste of taxpayer dollars for office renovations, payments to selection senior status judges above a cap, using state property for personal use, and for not having policies regarding travel, inventory control, and purchasing.
Davis resigned shortly after the articles of impeachment were adopted. Walker, the current chief justice, was acquitted of her lone impeachment article by the Senate, but received a censure. Workman filed a petition to stop her impeachment trial that was heard by an all-appointed group of circuit court judges.
The judges ruled in Workman’s favor, arguing that the House violated the separation of powers between the two branches and also violated their own impeachment procedures. The ruling stopped the remaining impeachment trials for Loughry and Davis.
Since January, the Supreme Court has instituted a number of reforms, including limiting the use of court vehicles, policies regarding computer use, purchasing card controls, inventory management and accounting standards. Stuart acknowledged that the court still has a way to go to restore trust.
“This does not mean there will not be another investigation regarding other issues at some point in the future, but, for now, we are finished with our work,” Stuart said. “I have said many times, this office takes the issue of public corruption and abuse of the public trust incredibly seriously. There is no such thing as a little bit of public corruption.”
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