CHARLESTON – An attorney who defeated a longtime Nicholas County circuit judge in May’s election is facing ethics charges over a flier sent to voters during the campaign.
In a statement of charges released July 31, the state Judicial Investigation Commission says Summersville attorney Steve Callaghan created the two-page flier or caused it to be distributed to voters in Nicholas County about a week before the election. The flier showed Nicholas Circuit Judge Gary Johnson partying with President Barack Obama.
In the May 10 election, Callaghan defeated Johnson by 220 votes. Johnson had been a judge for 23 years.
The JIC charged Callaghan with violating the state’s Judicial Code of Conduct, which are the rules judges and judicial candidates must follow.
The flier “was intended to deceive voters into believing Judge Johnson and U.S. President Barack Obama were drinking beer and partying at the White House while conniving with one another to kill coal mining jobs in Nicholas County,” the JIC statement says.
According to the JIC statement, Callaghan said the idea for the flier began with Johnson’s June 2015 trip to Washington for a child trafficking seminar. Johnson, who is chairman of the state Court Improvement Program, attended the conference hosted by the National Court Improvement Program.
Rainmaker Inc., a Charleston-based consulting firm that worked with Callaghan’s campaign, found a news story and a state Supreme Court press release about Johnson’s trip.
“The press release and the news article made absolutely no mention of a party, alcohol or President Obama attending the event,” the JIC charges state. “Judge Johnson has never met President Obama. Judge Johnson has never been invited to the White House by President Obama.”
On May 5, the day the flier was mailed to voters, it also was posted on Callaghan’s Facebook campaign page, according to the JIC statement. It also says a state disciplinary lawyer called Callaghan that night and told him she thought it violated ethics rules. But she said if he took the post down and ran radio ads balancing the claims made in the flier, she wouldn’t file a disciplinary complaint against him, according to the JIC statement of charges.
The statement says Callaghan did remove the post from the campaign Facebook page and posted an apology saying the mailer provided an inaccurate image of Johnson.
He also purchased radio ads, according to the statement.
“If you receive a mail advertisement recently from Steve Callaghan, Candidate for Nicholas County Circuit Judge, showing Judge Gary Johnson visiting the White House, please understand that the specific characterization of the White House visit may be inaccurate and misleading and should not have been sent containing this inappropriate information,” the radio ad said, according to the charges.
Nicholas Johnson filed the complaint against Callaghan on May 26, about two weeks after the election. Nicholas Johnson is an attorney with Bailey & Glasser in the firm's Washington, D.C., office and the son of Judge Johnson.
Callaghan has 30 days to respond to the JIC’s statement of charges. After that, arguments will be made before the Judicial Hearing Board. The board then will make a recommendation for discipline, if any, to the state Supreme Court.
Callaghan issued a statement Aug. 2 to The West Virginia Record.
“During the 2016 Nicholas County Circuit Judge nonpartisan election, my campaign committee, for which I take full responsibility, produced a mail advertisement addressing a visit to the White House by Judge Gary Johnson and included a Photoshopped parody on the cover depicting President Obama and Judge Johnson ‘partying,’ Callaghan said in the statement. “There is no question the First Amendment protects a vigorous and robust exchange of ideas, parody, and other expressions of opinion, particularly in the context of an election. …
“However, within hours after this mailer was sent and appeared on my campaign’s social media, I took a number of actions to remove this material from my campaign’s social media and I ran several radio commercials apologizing for any misunderstanding the mailer may have created if the parody on the cover were taken literally. My intent was never to mislead the public in any way and I took quick and decisive action to make sure the citizens were not misled.
“Once again, as I stated prior to the election, I take full responsibility for my actions and I personally apologize for any misunderstandings or perceived inaccuracies in my campaign material.”
Johnson is a nationally recognized leader in child abuse and neglect issues, and he currently is chairman of the state Supreme Court’s Court Improvement Program.
He also is a member of the 2014 Governor’s Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice, and the Commission to Study the Residential Placement of Children. As Chairman of the Court Improvement Program, he helped establish the first West Virginia University College of Law class on children and the law.
Johnson was given the Steward of Unity Award by the West Virginia Child Care Association in 2013; the Commissioner’s Award by the Administration on Children, Youth and Families in 2009; and the Extra Mile Award by the West Virginia Children’s Justice Task Force in 2008. In 1999, he was named an Angel in Adoption by the United States Congress and the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.