CHARLESTON – The president of the West Virginia Senate wants residents to vote on adding a constitutional amendment to give the Legislature power over the state Supreme Court’s budget.
“I am incredibly disappointed in what appears to be frivolous spending,” Mitch Carmichael said Nov. 14 after a television report detailed renovations to the state Supreme Court offices and chambers. “The taxpayer dollars must be respected and used in the most efficient way possible. And it did not occur here.
“I think the solution is a constitutional amendment to give the Legislature control over the judicial branch of government’s budget. It’s already like that in most every other state. But now, the Court submits their own budget, and we have no control over that. The issue becomes this frivolous spending. This wouldn’t occur with proper oversight.
“There will be resolutions introduced to have this constitutional amendment put to the voters. The Legislature is shocked at the spending … the frivolous nature of it. For years, we’ve wanted control of that budget. This just gives us more reason to do that.”
WCHS/WVAH Eyewitness News reporter Kennie Bass detailed the expenditures in a Nov. 13 report. Since 2009, the state Supreme Court offices have undergone extensive renovations. The original price tag was about $900,000. But it since has grown to more than $3.7 million.
Chief Justice Allen Loughry’s chambers has seen renovations to the tune of $363,000. That includes a sectional sofa that cost nearly $32,000 including $1,700 in throw pillows.
“It's absolutely outrageous that the prior administrative director would spend that much money on a couch with state money,” Loughry told Bass in an interview. “I think it's outrageous, and I think it's shameful.”
Loughry was referring to former state Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury, who was fired in January shortly after Loughry was named chief justice.
Loughry told Bass he has “very little” input into the renovations to his office.
“When I came into office, the renovations were a part of six and a half years of renovations, the first third and fourth floors,” he said. “More than 96 percent of those renovations were completed by the time it came to my office.”
Other items in Loughry’s office include eight office chairs that cost $16,374, a $2,560 coffee table and $6,409 for window cornices and blinds. Also, there is $7,500 for a wooden medallion of West Virginia built into the floor with each county made from a different colored piece of wood. Loughry’s native Tucker County is made of blue granite.
Canterbury told Bass that Loughry “put a lot of his effort into every detail.”
“We tried to take care of what he requested but ultimately it was his decision,” Canterbury said.
Loughry blames Canterbury for the spending, and he told Bass he did not select the couch or the fabric changes to it that increased the cost.
“Mr. Canterbury put things together and came and asked for approval of, maybe do you like this desk, do you like this color or something like that,” Loughry told Bass.
“I remember him saying something to the effect that, ‘Well, if anybody gets upset, I’ll just blame it on you, you’re the administrator,’” Canterbury said. “I laughed at that, of course. Good joke. But now the joke’s on me, I guess.”
Loughry told The West Virginia Record he was “absolutely shocked” to learn that Canterbury would spend that much money on some of these items.
“I think it’s absolutely outrageous, and these decisions were made solely by the former administrative director,” he said. “I’m outraged by this and other examples of Mr. Canterbury’s mismanagement of the court’s assets.
“After all, while I am Chief Justice, I’m still a citizen and taxpayer of this state. And I simply will not stand for this behavior. When I became the Chief Justice in January of this year, I ordered an immediate investigation into Mr. Canterbury’s spending and business practices. Some of the things I have discovered have been so troubling to me that I have personally contacted the United States Attorney’s Office.”
Loughry said he is proud that since he became Chief Justice, he has overseen a reduction in court spending of more than $7 million.
“Our staff is developing procedures and protocols to prevent this type of irresponsible spending,” he said. “I’m proud of the court’s recent fiscal accomplishments, and I think ours will be one of the most financially responsible and transparent court systems in the country.”
Canterbury told The Record his part in the matter was “pretty basic.”
“I worked for them,” he said. “They had approval over budgetary matters. But about their offices, they knew the particulars.
“The bottom line is that they’re the boss, and that’s that.”
Canterbury told Bass that he was following orders.
“Well, he was my boss and you really can't tell a boss no,” Canterbury told Bass. “You can explain that this might be busting the budget, but if he says do it then I signed off on it. My signing off on it is a distinction without a difference.
I mean, yes it’s my signature. But he was my boss. And you know, I think most people in West Virginia have bosses. They know that if the boss says to do it you do it, or suffer the consequences.”
Loughry called Canterbury a “disgruntled, fired former employee.”
“He threatened court members on the way out the door,” Loughry told Bass. “He’s trying to set this up to try to damage the court, damage individual members of the court for some future lawsuit.”
Davis, however, praised Canterbury’s work.
“Well, I think in the grand scheme of things, Steve did a, I think he did a very good job,” Davis told Bass. “I had a good working relationship with Steve. He was very professional. The guy worked 24/7. You know, I voted not to fire Steve, and I think that’s public knowledge. But the decision was made, and we move on.”
Bass’s report also showed that Justice Robin Jean Davis’ office saw more than $500,000 in renovations. More than $433,000 of that cost was for construction. The highest price items in her private office are an $8,000 office chair and two rugs that total more than $28,000. In October, Davis wrote a check for $10,000 to cover the cost of a sofa, her desk, a coffee table and chairs.
“Everything that you see in this, my private office, is owned by me,” she told Bass. “With the exception of the carpet that you're sitting on and that table and those two plastic chairs. The art, every other piece of furniture in my office is owned by me.”
Justice Margaret Workman’s chamber renovations cost $111,035. The highest ticket item in her office is a sofa that cost nearly $8,900.
Justice Menis Ketchum’s chamber renovations cost $193,909. The biggest tickets for his were $6,600 for renovation of his secretary's desk along with $11,489 for carpet, reupholstering and window treatments.
Justice Beth Walker’s chamber renovations cost $130,654. The same offices also were renovated in 2010 under former Justice Brent Benjamin at a cost of $264,301.
Workman, Ketchum and Walker didn’t talk to Bass on camera, but each provided statements to him.
* Workman: "Since the court discharged Steve Canterbury as the court administrator in January 2017, an investigation has been ongoing into his excessive, unauthorized, and otherwise questionable spending; and his misfeasance and malfeasance in the management of the court system. Chief Justice Loughry has been in touch with the prosecutorial authorities for quite some time and we are working with them to share all information that is uncovered in our investigation. Since Allen Loughry became chief justice and Gary Johnson the court administrator, we have already saved almost $8 million so far this year. The administrative office now has a completely different attitude that with their continued leadership, the court has returned to the responsible, frugal stewardship of public funds that we observed before the Canterbury tenure."
* Ketchum: "Through Chief Justice Loughry's effort the court has eliminated millions of dollars of excessive spending from prior years. Since January, 2017, Chief Justice Loughry has eliminated over $7 million of previous wasteful spending. This excessive spending would not have been discovered with Chief Justice Loughry's determined efforts. He has doggedly overturned every rock in an effort to discover and eliminate waste. I support all of Chief Justice Loughry's efforts to make the court frugal stewards of taxpayers' money."
* Walker: “I was looking forward to meeting with you during your visit to the court on Wednesday. However, I am unable to be there as a result of a serious family medical situation. I have given permission for you to film in my office, and I understand you will be provided information about the expenditures associated with it. If you have any questions, please direct them to me by email ... and I will do my best to respond promptly."