Trials adding up for West Virginia Supreme Court justices

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The federal trial of the ousted chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court is starting a day after a colleague’s impeachment trial began in the state Senate.

Jury selection is set to get under way Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Charleston for Allen Loughry who also has a Senate impeachment trial scheduled in November.

Loughry is accused in the 25-count federal indictment of repeatedly lying about using his office for personal gain, making personal use of a state vehicle and credit card, and trying to influence an employee’s testimony and a federal grand jury investigation.

The indictment accuses him of “creating a false narrative” about an antique desk and leather couch that he had transferred from the Supreme Court offices to his home, and that he repeated the false narrative to an FBI special agent during a March interview.

The House of Delegates in August impeached him and justices Beth Walker, Margaret Workman and Robin Davis. Walker’s impeachment trial started Monday and resumes Tuesday.

West Virginia’s courts are an independent branch of government, and Loughry, in consultation with the other justices, had constitutional autonomy in deciding how the system spends a $139 million annual budget. The justices are accused of abusing this authority by failing to rein in excessive spending on lavish office renovations, business lunches and the personal use of state cars. The cases also raised questions about corruption, incompetence and neglect of duty earlier this decade.

Some Democrats are calling it a power grab by the Republican-led legislature, strategically timed so GOP Gov. Jim Justice could name U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and former House Speaker Tim Armstead to temporarily replace Ketchum and Davis while running for their spots on the bench. Jenkins and Armstead are among 20 total candidates seeking those seats in a Nov. 6 special election.

A legislative audit found the justices skirted state law concerning pay for senior-status judges who are no longer on full-time duty by converting them from employees to independent contractors. The audit also tallied Supreme Court office renovations between 2012 and 2016 at $3.4 million, including $1.9 million for the five justices’ chambers.

Loughry has repeatedly denied involvement in renovations of his office, which cost $353,000 and included a $32,000 blue suede couch and a $7,500 wood-inlay floor map of West Virginia. He made one such denial to the House Committee on Finance in January. He blamed the spending on former court administrator Steve Canterbury, whom he fired in January 2017.

Loughry, who was removed and suspended without pay earlier this year by the state’s high court, also had a $42,000 state-owned antique desk moved into his home. He returned the desk after news outlets asked about it.

He also signed for a state car for a total of 212 days from 2013 to 2015 but failed to list a destination for 148 days, including trips to visit family and for signings of his 2006 book chronicling West Virginia political corruption. The indictment says he also sought mileage reimbursements for trips even though he drove a state vehicle and used a government credit card for gas.

Walker is accused of abuse of authority, a charge also levied against the other justices. It states they failed to control office expenses and maintain policies over matters such as working lunches and the use of state vehicles and office computers at home.

But Walker testified in the Senate on Monday that she’s not aware the court has any policy regarding excessive spending that she could have violated. She said she shouldn’t be standing trial. House impeachment managers had reached a settlement agreement to drop her charge, but the Senate rejected it.

“When I think impeachment, I think about things like crime, stealing, lying and corruption,” Walker said. “I don’t think I’ve done any of those things.”

Impeachment trials also are set later this month for Workman and Davis. Davis announced her retirement shortly after her impeachment, but the Senate also rejected a resolution that would have dropped charges against her.

A fifth justice, Menis Ketchum, resigned before the impeachment proceedings began.

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