Reporter’s Notebook: Wheels of justice go round and round

I’ll be spending the month of October going from trial to trial it seems. Almost every day there is a new motion, response, or lawsuit.

This week I went from covering the impeachment trial of Justice Beth Walker of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, to covering the federal trial of Justice Allen Loughry.

Let’s start with Walker’s trial in the West Virginia Senate on Oct. 1-2. The first day I covered from the back seat of a car traveling back from a wedding in Virginia.

Technology is a wonderful things sometimes, and my wife and I were able to stream the proceedings over my phone and use Bluetooth to play the trial over the car speakers, allowing me to take notes. By the time we arrived in Charleston last Monday afternoon, I had the outline of a story. I was able to cover the trial in person the next day.

Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, and the House impeachment managers made some fairly compelling arguments that Walker knew it was wrong for the court to pay for catered lunches from expensive Charleston restaurants with taxpayer dollars. They pointed out that Walker only reimbursed the taxpayers for one-fifth of the cost after a Freedom of Information Act request was sent to the court for information on the meal costs.

This is twice that someone at the supreme court largely went along without gathering more information. Walker said she inquired of Loughry what the costs were for the lunches and was told not to worry about it. So, she didn’t. She should have pushed harder. Jennifer Bundy, the court’s public information officer, also took Loughry at his word that there was a home office policy without checking to see if there was actually a home office policy.

It’s just me, but I’ve always liked to have policies and directives in writing. I’m silly that way.

Despite some of the excellent points made by Shott as he prosecuted Walker’s case, I think the senators made the right decision. Thirty-two senators (one was absent) voted not to convict Walker of the final, catch-all impeachment article charging the court with having no policies on spending and use of court property. Only one, state Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, voted to convict.

“I was the only one who voted to convict her,” Baldwin wrote on his campaign Facebook page. “Why? Because I listened to the evidence and felt her actions involving office renovations, free lunches at taxpayer expense, and payment to outside counsel to author an opinion rose to the level of ‘maladministration,’ which is the constitutional threshold for conviction of impeachment. It was a judgment call every Senator had to make, and I made the call I thought was right to restore public trust in the court, produce accountability, and allow WV to move forward.”

Shott and his fellow impeachment managers have a problem. If the other 33 senators believe that Walker’s actions did not constitute maladministration, then it’s going to be just as tough to convict Chief Justice Margaret Workman, former justice Robin Davis, and suspended Justice Loughry.

I know I’ve been tough on Shott, but it never made sense to me to include more than one justice in one impeachment article. The complaints laid out in article 11 should have been put into a resolution and used to censure the justices. A censure doesn’t have any weight, but if no justice is convicted on article 11, then censure is the only option anyway.

I know Workman is fighting to stop the impeachment trial proceedings, but I say roll the dice. The chances are in your favor.

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Of course, the federal trial of Loughry is far more serious. We’re not just talking about being removed from office, but we’re talking about felonies and prison time.

Loughry’s attorney, John Carr, is making a good case regarding the court’s travel policies, which are either non-existent or the justices were exempt from. Former President Richard Nixon once told an interviewer regarding the Watergate cover-up that it’s not against the law when the president does it. Apparently justices had a similar power to ignore policies and procedures.

Carr is trying to muddy the waters to convince jurors that there is no evidence that Loughry used state vehicles and the fuel cards for personal use. He argues that the fuel card records are not clear, that car check-out systems could be manipulated after the fact, and that memos from then-Justice Davis seeking more info on court vehicle usage were political actions to make Loughry look bad. Carr might actually be able to sow doubt on the charges against Loughry for wire fraud for the vehicle usage.

The problem for Loughry is going to be the ghost of Capitol architect Cass Gilbert. Loughry is charged with lying to FBI agents about whether the desk he had in his home was one of the original desks purchased by Cass Gilbert for the supreme court offices back in the 1920s.

It’s clear that all current and former supreme court employees know what a Cass Gilbert desk is, can identify them on sight, and can testify that Loughry had a Cass Gilbert desk when he was a law clerk prior to being elected to the court. Some can testify that Loughry openly bragged about having a Cass Gilbert desk. When Loughry had several court staffers come to his home to help him get the desk out of his home before the media found out it was there, he allegedly told them they were moving a Cass Gilbert desk.

It’s frankly a strange thing to allegedly lie under oath about. One of his charges alleges he used a moving company to transport the desk to his home and kept the move quiet. All the witnesses who were asked all said they had no idea Loughry had a Cass Gilbert desk in his home.

It’s going to be hard for Loughry and Carr to explain that away, but I’ll be there when they do. The court returns this morning.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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