|Some WV legislators, following this report, are calling for the WV Legislature to have oversight over Supreme Court spending, while officials blame each other for spending practices.|
Original estimates for furniture and fixtures was $900,000, but has now reached $3.7 million.
West Virginia is the only state in the union where the court has complete control over its budgetary appropriation.
By Kennie Bass CHARLESTON, WV (WCHS/WVAH) — The West Virginia Supreme Court is a secretive place. In fact, this is the first time anyone here can remember that TV cameras were allowed into the inner sanctum, the private offices of the five justices.
Since 2009, there has been a lot of renovation work going on here. The original estimate for the upgrades was about $900,000. That has since ballooned to more than $3.7 million.
We start with Chief Justice Allen Loughry's chambers. He took office in 2013 with work on his office beginning soon thereafter. The total cost for the work was just over $363,000, but that included some major expenditures for office furniture. Namely, a sectional sofa with a price tag of nearly $32,000, complete with $1,700 in throw pillows.
Kennie Bass/Eyewitness News: "Why is there a couch that cost more than $30,000 in your chambers?"
"Kennie, it's absolutely outrageous that the prior administrative director would spend that much money on a couch with state money," Loughry said. "I think it's outrageous, and I think it's shameful."
Other furniture bills for Loughry's space include $16,374 for eight office chairs, a $2,560 coffee table and $6,409 for window cornices and blinds. And then there is the most unique part of Justice Loughry's office, a custom-made wooden medallion built into the floor with each county cut from a different colored piece of wood and Justice Loughry's home county, Tucker, in blue granite. This cost taxpayers $7,500, about a quarter of the total cost of the floor.
Kennie Bass/Eyewitness News: "How much input did you have in the renovations and furnishings of your office?"
"Well, very little," Loughry said. "When I came into office, the renovations were a part of six and a half years of renovations, the first third and fourth floors. More than 96 percent of those renovations were completed by the time it came to my office."
Steve Canterbury, former administrative director of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, said 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."
As the former administrative director for the court, Canterbury was in charge of the day-to-day business of the Supreme Court for more than 11 years, and Loughry puts the blame for the spending on him.
"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 said.
"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."
Kennie Bass/Eyewitness News: "So to be clear, you did not select that couch and you did not mandate the $20-some thousand dollars in fabric changes for that couch?"
"Absolutely outrageous. The answer is no," Loughry said.
Justice Robin Davis is the senior justice on the court. The renovation of her office was the most expensive of all of the justices' chambers at $500,278. Most of that, $433,105, went to construction costs. The modern look of Davis' office, however, required extensive stainless steel, glass and word work that vastly increased the bottom line.
"I wanted the people of West Virginia to hear about my office from me," Davis said. "You know, anything that is done in this office is on me."
Davis' biggest taxpayer-funded furniture expenditures include an $8,098 office chair.
Kennie Bass/Eyewitness News: "Is that a lot for a chair?"
"Well, it's probably a lot for a chair, But I have arthritis in my spine and it allows me to sit here for hours on end. And I chose the chair," Davis said.
And two floor rugs totaling $28,194.
"That is an Edward Fields rug, It is a high-quality rug, and it will last the taxpayers of the state of West Virginia for another 50 years," Davis said.
Justice Davis now owns many of her office furnishings, including a sofa, her desk, a coffee table and chairs. She wrote the state a check for $10,000 in October to cover the purchases from 2013.
"Everything that you see in this, my private office, is owned by me. 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," Davis said.
None of the other three justices agreed to on-camera interviews.
Justice Margaret Workman's chamber renovations were the least expensive of the five, costing $111,035. Like Justice Davis, she owns most of her office's furnishings. She did, however, purchase an $8,892 sofa that was paid for with state money.
Justice Menis Ketchum says he wanted a traditional, old-time lawyer look for his chambers. Court records show renovations here cost $193,909. Receipts show that major expenses for his office, outside of infrastructure, were $6,600 for renovation of his secretary's desk along with $11,489 for carpet, reupholstering and window treatments.
Earlier this year, work done on Justice Beth Walker's chambers totaled $130,654. The majority of that money went to cabinetry, countertops, fixtures and flooring. Those chambers, however, had been extensively renovated just seven years earlier for former justice Brent Benjamin at a price tag of $264,301. When you combine the bills for both projects, the cost goes up to $394,955.
With so much money being spent by the court, where was the oversight?
"I believe prior justices had a trust in Mr. Canterbury," Loughry said.
Justice Loughry led the efforts 10 months ago to have Canterbury fired.
"When I became the chief justice in January of this year, I started an investigation of Mr. Canterbury and the actions of his prior administration. And some of the things that I've discovered have been very troubling. So troubling in fact that I have personally contacted the United States Attorney's Office," Loughry said.
"Well, hah! Well, he was my boss and you really can't tell a boss no," Canterbury said. "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."
"Mr. Canterbury is a disgruntled, fired former employee," Loughry said. "He threatened court members on the way out the door. He's trying to set this up to try to damage the court, damage individual members of the court for some future lawsuit."
To our knowledge, no lawsuit has been filed. But not every justice is critical of Canterbury.
"Well, I think in the grand scheme of things, Steve did a, I think he did a very good job," Davis said. "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."
"Kennie, when we're finished with this you're going to see this branch being the most transparent branch in the state of West Virginia," Loughry said.
"West Virginia is the only state in the union where the court has complete control over its budgetary appropriation," Canterbury said.
Meaning each year, the court submits a funding request to the Legislature, which is approved and then the courts spends the money the way it sees fit.
Kennie Bass/Eyewitness News: How do we fix that?
"Well, it's a constitutional amendment," Loughry said. "Educate people, get them to vote for the Legislature controlling the money."
Justice Loughry said the court is fixing itself.
"We're making incredible changes," Loughry said. "The majority of the court is on board with everything that's happening. It is night and day from where we were in January."
"I was in this business I hope for the right reasons to do right things," Canterbury said. "And. of course, it pisses me off that I was fired. But, these are just facts. And I had opinions but I kept most of those opinions to myself. The wonderful thing about retirement is that I can actually express an opinion now."
Justices Workman, Ketchum and Walker declined to talk with us on camera, but they provided the following statements.
Justice Margaret Workman statement: "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."
Justice Menis Ketchum statement: "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."
Justice Beth Walker statement: "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."