Democrats raise objections at House impeachment hearings

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CHARLESTON — Members of the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony from legislative auditors on the first day of impeachment hearings, but issues over rules put in place by the chairman riled up members of the minority party.

Delegate John Shott, a Republican from Mercer County and chair of the committee, gave an opening statement at the start of Thursday’s hearing to determine if articles of impeachment should be brought against one or more justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

That job will be made easier, Shott says, with the resignation of Justice Menis Ketchum. The one-term justice sent a letter of resignation to Gov. Jim Justice Wednesday, effective July 27.

“Because the retirement of Justice Ketchum will effectively result in his removal from office, we will not spend time dealing with the findings of any reports that deal with Justice Ketchum,” Shott said.

Before explaining the rules of procedure, Shott stressed the gravity of what the committee was about to do in considering impeachment of an elected official in an independent branch of government.

“I know I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about what we’re about to undertake,” Shott said.

“The ultimate results of what we’re doing here today could be to overturn a duly elected official’s term.”

Shott explained the rules of procedure to the committee members. The rules govern how the committee will operate, including the process for interviewing witnesses, collecting evidence, and the rights of justices.

House Democrats raised concerns about the last sentence in rule eight, which states that “No motion to issue articles of impeachment shall be considered until counsel for the committee has informed the Chair that presentation of all evidence regarding the subject against whom the proposed articles are addressed has been completed.”

Motions made by Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, a Democrat from Monongalia County and minority chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and other minority Democrats were rejected with no consideration by Shott. HR 201, passed on the first day of the June 26 special session, gives the judiciary chairman authority to establish the rules of procedure.

“If you look at the words of the resolution it says that the House committee may entertain procedural and dispositive motions as may be made in the case of any other bill or resolution,” Fleischauer said. “I’m asking to offer an amendment to those procedural rules like I’d be able to with any other bill.”

“And it’s my opinion and the ruling of the chair that the authority given to the chairman in the resolution trumps the other rules insofar as it pertains to procedurally setting the rules for the committee’s action,” Shott said. “Those rules have been adopted.”

Shott said he emailed members of the committee on June 29 seeking input on the rules of procedure, but received no inquires. The finalized rules were released to committee members Wednesday.

Democratic committee members also raised concerns about a meeting that judiciary committee staff had with the attorney for Justice Allen Loughry over the rules of procedure.

Aaron Allred, the legislative auditor, and Post Audit Division acting director Justin Robinson spent all day — nearly 10 hours — briefing the committee and fielding questions on three audits conducted by the agency between April and June for the Joint Committee in Government and Finance, Democrats said.

The first audit focused on vehicle use by justices and the use of Supreme Court property for personal use. The report said some justices used state vehicles and rental cars paid for at taxpayer expense for their own gain, while ignoring federal law.

According to the report, Ketchum used the court’s 2007 Buick Lucerne for more than four years to commute to Charleston from his home in Huntington. He also reportedly used the vehicle for golf outings in Virginia, using a state purchasing card for gasoline. Loughry used two of the court’s Buicks for several undocumented trips, the report said. Both reportedly failed to include this information on their tax forms.

Of the 212 days Loughry reserved a state car between 2013 and 2016, 148 days — or 70 percent of Justice Loughry’s reservations — had no destination listed, the report said. Loughry had a state vehicle for 27 days between December 10, 2014, and January 5, 2016 — when the court was in recess, the report said. Loughry also used rental cars for personal use, racking up more miles than the distance between his hotel and the airport, according to the report.

“I disagree with the factual and legal assumptions made, the standards and definitions applied, and the conclusions ultimately reached in the draft audit report,” Loughry said in a response to the audit in April.

The audits also criticize Loughry for use of an antique desk purchased by Capitol architect Cass Gilbert for the East Wing. Loughry had the desk delivered to his home by state workers, the report said. The desk is worth $42,000.

While much of the questions focused on Loughry, who is suspended without pay facing a 22-count federal indictment, some questions from Republican members of the committee focused on Justice Robin Davis.

A second audit, released in May, focused on a trip Davis took to Wheeling on Nov. 13, 2011. Using a state vehicle and traveling with the court’s director of security, Davis spent the night in Wheeling, attended an anti-truancy event the next morning, then drove to Parkersburg for a political fundraiser, the audit said. She reportedly paid for her own lodging and charged the state $115 for meal expenses.

Committee members will return today at 9 a.m. to continue discussion and questioning. Shott said he expects lawmakers to finish by Friday afternoon. More meetings are expected to be called Thursday, July 19.

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