West Virginia Supreme Court spending redefines extravagance
How is it possible for five people to spend $114,788 on picture frames during a seven-year period? Ask justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court. They did it.
Criminal behavior by two justices has been alleged by federal prosecutors. One, Allen Loughry, is charged with 23 crimes and may be impeached and removed by the Legislature. He has been suspended from the court.
[Since this column was written, the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against all sitting members of the court.]
The other, Menis Ketchum, resigned from the court and has agreed to plead guilty to one charge related to using a state car and state credit card for personal purposes.
That’s 40 percent of the state’s highest court.
But the real corruption appears to have been perfectly legal. It is a scandal in which millions of dollars were spent, often for questionable if not outright improper purposes.
Members of the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee have been investigating the court’s spending. Other inquiries have been made by legislative auditors. Here is some of what they found, in case you missed the initial reports:
* Legislators have absolute control over the budgets of most branches of state government. The court, because of concern over separation of powers, is different. Traditionally, what the Supreme Court asked for to administer justice at all levels was what it received.
* That allowed the court to tuck away millions of dollars not needed for everyday expenses by it, circuit courts and magistrates throughout the state. The amount rose from $1.4 million in 2007 to $29 million in 2012.
* Reportedly worried that if legislators found out about all that unneeded money, they might reduce the courts’ appropriation, justices went on a spending spree to drain the unused funds accounts.
* A massive remodeling project ensued at the court’s offices. Following is how much was spent in each justice’s office:
Margaret Workman — $111,035.
Beth Walker — $130,654.
Ketchum — $171,838.
Former Justice Brent Benjamin — $264,301.
Loughry — $363,013.
Robin Jean Davis — $500,278.
The total was $1,541,119. That’s enough to get started on a pretty nice subdivision.
* Justices rewrote the definition of the word “extravagant” in some of their remodeling. There was the wood inlaid floor in Loughry’s office, designed as a map showing all 55 counties in the state. Loughry’s home, Tucker County, is in granite.
* Then there is the infamous $32,000 couch. Enough said about that.
* Finally, the picture frames. Auditors found that from 2009-15, the court paid $114,788 to the Art Store in Charleston, for framing.
They spent more on picture frames than most homes in West Virginia are worth. According to the Census Bureau, the median price of an owner-occupied house in the state is $107,400, in case you’re wondering.
How is that possible? Some on the court, including Loughry, blame ex-court Administrator Steve Canterbury. He spent the money without keeping them in the loop, it has been maintained.
Canterbury, who was fired by the court, says justices knew how the money was being spent.
One way or another, it appears they just didn’t care enough to keep tabs on spending. When you undertake a remodeling project at home, you watch the nickles and dimes. It’s your money, after all, and you can afford only so much to make the homeplace look nice.
But money for the court remodeling wasn’t coming out of the justices’ pockets, so, apparently, none of them worried about economizing.
Trouble is, the money had to come from somewhere — Mountain State taxpayers.
That — flagrant misuse of our money — is the real scandal on the West Virginia Supreme Court.
Mike Myer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.