The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The entire W.Va. Supreme Court faces impeachment for alleged corruption: Gas money, restaurant lunches, an antique desk

The desks went missing in the Mountain State.

Not just any desks. These were state heirlooms named for Cass Gilbert, the prominent American architect who designed the state capitol in Charleston, W.Va., selecting the walnut workstations for the chambers of the state Supreme Court almost a century ago. He would later design the United States Supreme Court.

There were supposed to be 10 of them, five for the court’s five justices, elected to 12-year terms, and five for their assistants. But local media, poking around last fall, could only account for seven desks, including the one that had recently gone from the home of the then-chief justice, Allen H. Loughry II, to a nearby court warehouse.

But wait, why was the desk, state property valued at $42,000, at the judge’s private residence in the first place? And now that you mention it, what about that leather couch that had left his home for the warehouse three days earlier?

Federal investigators believe they have answers to these questions — answers that form the basis of a 23-count indictment charging Loughry, a Republican, with fraud, witness tampering, lying to a federal agent and obstruction of justice. If convicted on all counts, he could face up to 405 years in prison and a fine of $5.75 million. He pleaded not guilty and was suspended without pay in June.

But it’s not just Loughry, 48, whose future on the court is in doubt.

A West Virginia House panel moved this week to impeach the state’s entire Supreme Court. Fourteen articles of impeachment, which will go to the full House of Delegates for a vote, allege corruption, maladministration, incompetence, neglect of duty and potential criminal behavior — impeachable offenses under Article IV, Section 9 of the West Virginia Constitution. Two-thirds of the Senate must vote to convict. Both houses are Republican-controlled.

A possible complication, testifying to the sweep of the alleged wrongdoing, is the constitutional provision that the court’s chief justice — or another member of the top court — presides over the Senate when the upper chamber tries impeachments. In this circumstance, no judge would be available, as four are implicated. The fifth seat was vacated when Menis E. Ketchum II, a Democrat, resigned in July, days before he was accused of federal wire fraud. He became embroiled in controversy after an audit found that he may have improperly used state vehicles for personal purposes, according to local news reports. He is pleading guilty.

“This is truly a sad day for West Virginia, but it is an important step forward if we are going to restore the public’s confidence in the judiciary,” the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, John Shott, a Republican, said in a press release after the panel’s vote. “This committee did not take this effort lightly. After reviewing all the evidence available to us, it became clear that a culture of entitlement and disregard for both the law and taxpayer funds have damaged the reputation of our judicial system — and that all justices had a part in violating the public’s trust.”

The other three justices are Margaret Workman, the current chief, as well as Robin Davis and Beth Walker. Each is accused of “unnecessary and lavish spending” on renovation of their offices, travel budgets and “regular lunches from restaurants,” among other expenses, as well as failure to carry out administrative duties and properly develop guidelines for the use of public resources. Davis and Workman are also charged with approving the payment of senior judges in excess of the state’s legal limit. Loughry faces a slew of charges, from misuse of state property to deception under oath.

None of the four returned requests for comment sent late Thursday by The Washington Post. Loughry has called some of the allegations of excessive spending “outrageous.” Workman, reacting in April to the release of the audit calling into question practices by Loughry and Ketchum, said “the policies going forward are going to be much tighter,” according to the Associated Press.

Elections to the state Supreme Court became formally nonpartisan in 2015. But each justice remains tied to a given party, and the current makeup of the court is 3-2 in the Democrats’ favor.

Democratic lawmakers said the court’s political composition and the timing of the legislative proceedings, which have come just before the August 14 deadline to organize a special election, call into question the intentions of Gov. Jim Justice, who switched parties and became a Republican after taking office last year. Once next week’s deadline passes, he would enjoy the power to appoint any new justices, who would serve until the next election in two years.

Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that the impeachment vote amounted to a “coup,” while Shott, the committee’s chairman, defended the effort to remove the judges.

“We said this to our committee when we started, this was a no-win situation,” Shott told the Gazette-Mail. “Especially in an election year, there’s going to be people who will spin it however it creates the most advantage to them. That’s just part of the process.”

Democrats also sought to distinguish the charges of impeachment against Loughry from those against the other three justices. The federal indictment elucidates the severity of the allegations against Loughry, while also pointing to the irony of his situation.

In 2006, when he was still a law clerk for the state Supreme Court, he published a stinging account of political corruption in his own beloved state, where he learned values of hard work and honesty from a father who rose from construction work to own a small business and a mother who toiled in a factory. He titled his book, “‘Don’t Buy Another Vote. I Won’t Pay for a Landslide’: The Sordid and Continuing History of Political Corruption in West Virginia.”

When public servants line their pockets, Loughry wrote, resources for everyday citizens dry up.

“As I drive the picturesque country roads outlined with redbud and aging hardwoods, my attention is drawn to the potholes and general signs of neglect from town to town,” he lamented.

In 2012, Loughry was elected to the state Supreme Court. In 2017, he became its chief justice. In the process, investigators suggest, he became one of the “corrupt politicians” that his book condemns for having “abused their positions for personal gain.”

A further irony lies in the origins of the indictment. It is the product of a federal probe opened after Loughry met last year with a special agent of the FBI and a representative of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia to report his colleagues for improper spending.

But it was Loughry, investigators said, who had committed fraud, involving his use of two court vehicles and government credit cards for gas and his appropriation of a “valuable and historic desk” for his “home office.” He further attempted to “conceal his fraudulent conduct,” the indictment claims, “by lying about his actions to government investigators and others, attempting to deflect attention away from himself by accusing others of malfeasance.” He also sought protect himself, investigators argue, by influencing testimony from a court employee.

According to the indictment, Loughry participated in frequent speaking engagements, often on the topic of ethics reform. On one occasion, it recounts, he drove with his family to a dinner at American University in Washington, D.C., where he had studied for one of his numerous degrees. He took a 2012 Buick LaCrosse owned by the court and used a court credit card to pay for gas. He spoke about honesty and integrity in government and then made the hosting university foot his travel bill, even though he had driven on the court’s dime, the indictment alleges. He used a court vehicle and credit card on a weekend that, in his personal calendar, he had marked “anniversary,” according to investigators, and traveled in court vehicles to book-signing events and on holiday excursions.

When court chambers underwent renovation in 2013, the indictment alleges, Loughry arranged to have the Cass Gilbert desk in his workspace moved to his private residence, enlisting a state-contracted company to transfer the desk on a state holiday.

Last fall, local media begin publishing reports about “extraordinary spending by the Supreme Court,” the indictment notes, “including hundreds of thousands of dollars spent for renovating and refurbishing” the chambers in the east wing of the state capitol. In November, investigators say, Loughry returned sets of keys for two court vehicles. Then he returned the couch. Then the desk. He told court employees that judges were allowed to have home offices, according to the indictment, though no such policy existed.

Investigators interviewed the judge for a second time in March of this year, when he continued to make misleading statements about his spending habits and use of court property, the indictment holds. He was arrested in June and released on bond. He will appear in federal court on Oct. 2.