MORGANTOWN – West Virginia MetroNews statewide correspondent Brad McElhinny reported last Friday, “a rumor has been circulating in recent days that federal authorities have been interviewing (State Supreme) Court officials.”
Rumors are not typically news, but there is enough smoke swirling around the state’s highest court to suggest a fire. After all, Justice Allen Loughry has freely admitted that he has notified federal authorities about questionable spending at the Court.
The Court has been under close scrutiny by the media and the public since revelations late last year about exorbitant spending on office remodeling and furnishings, including a $32,000 couch in Loughry’s office and a $500,000 office makeover for Justice Robin Davis’s office.
Friday, Loughry re-confirmed the feds interest.
“In 2016, I requested a federal investigation into certain practices and procedures within the Supreme Court,” he said in a prepared statement. “At the time I was dismayed with those procedures and practices and felt that I had a legal and ethical obligation to contact federal authorities.”
His statement came in response to the high court’s decision to remove Loughry from the position of Chief Justice and elect Justice Margaret Workman in his place. Loughry will remain on the Court.
“In my opinion, the action taken by the Court today is in response to my cooperation with federal authorities,” Loughry said. “I defer to the federal prosecutor’s office for more information.”
However, U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart is staying mum.
“Regarding various media reports concerning the West Virginia Supreme Court, in accordance with Department of Justice Policy, the United States will neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation,” Stuart said in statement.
But if federal investigators are not asking questions, why did the Court feel compelled, at this time, to remove Loughry from the Chief Justice’s position?
Workman said only, “It’s time to begin what will be a very long process of restoring public respect for the Supreme Court.”
She’s right about that. The excessive spending of taxpayer dollars on couches (including one in her office), luxury rugs, office renovations and furniture remodeling has triggered outrage and been the subject of sarcastic humor at the Capitol.
At least two lawmakers – Delegate Mike Pushkin (D-Kanawha) and Senator Richard Ojeda (D-Logan) – have called for impeachment proceedings against Loughry. Pushkin said removing Loughry from the Chief Justice position was the right move. “I think confidence in the judiciary has been tarnished.”
But remember that it was Loughry who called for the federal investigation in the first place, placing blame on former Court Administrator Steve Canterbury for the excessive spending (Canterbury has maintained that he was just following orders and the Justices were aware of the spending).
Do you instigate a federal probe knowing you might be the subject of it? That wouldn’t make sense.
The drip, drip media reports about the spending have made the Justices look like out-of-touch elitists who have little regard for taxpayer dollars when the state’s finances are so tight. If there is a federal investigation, let’s hope it turns over all the stones so the public can have an accurate accounting of how taxpayer dollars were wasted or misappropriated and who signed off on it.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.