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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia lawmakers completed the extraordinary move of impeaching all four state Supreme Court justices Monday night for spending issues, including a suspended justice facing a 23-count federal indictment.
The state House of Delegates voted to impeach Justice Allen Loughry on eight articles, setting the stage for a trial in the state Senate.
Beth Walker became the final justice to be impeached when an article was approved stating all four justices abused their authority. It said they failed to control office expenses, including more than $1 million in renovations to their individual offices, and not maintaining policies over matters such as working lunches and the use of state vehicles and office computers at home.
Walker had dodged impeachment earlier Monday night when lawmakers decided to overlook her $131,000 in spending on office renovations. A short time later, another article was withdrawn against Chief Justice Margaret Workman, who spent $111,000 in renovations.
Justice Robin Davis was impeached for $500,000 in office renovations. And lawmakers approved articles against Loughry for spending $363,000 in renovations to his office; having a $42,000 antique desk and computers, all owned by the state, at his home; lying to the House Finance Committee about taking home the desk and a $32,000 suede leather couch; and for his personal use of state vehicles.
Loughry, Workman and Davis also were impeached for their roles in allowing senior status judges to be paid higher than allowed wages. Lawmakers say the overpayments violated state law and stopped when they were challenged by the Internal Revenue Service.
Another impeachment article was withdrawn dealing with an accusation Loughry used state money to frame personal items at his office.
Minority Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee that approved the articles last week had tried to speed up the impeachment process in the hopes of beating an Aug. 14 deadline for arranging a special election in November if any justice is removed from office or leaves office. Instead, the committee took its time, even conducting a tour of the state Supreme Court offices earlier this month.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice will be allowed to appoint new justices to replace any who are impeached — with no requirement that they be from the same party as the incumbent.
Democrats have accused Republicans of attempting to wrest the court away from voters, who elected the current justices in nonpartisan elections.
Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer of Monongalia County said Democrats agreed all along there was enough to recommend Loughry's impeachment. But she said going after the other justices "was a power grab, was a takeover of the court and using the impeachment process to take over another branch of government."
"We're taking away from the people," she said
Some legislators said they didn't support impeaching any justice for wasteful spending, only for articles pertaining to lying, cheating or stealing.
But John Shott, a Mercer County Republican who chaired the House Judiciary Committee hearings that drew up the impeachment articles, asked whether there is public confidence in the court, and if not, "we need to take action to try to rebuild that trust."
Several lawmakers noted the Supreme Court has a separate budget and is currently allowed to spend as it sees fit. But Shott said the court should spend that money wisely "and for the benefit of its citizens."
A proposed constitutional amendment this fall would bring the state courts' budget partly under legislative control.
Loughry, who wrote a 2006 book chronicling West Virginia political corruption, was indicted in June on 23 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, lying to federal law enforcement, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Justice and legislative leaders have asked him to resign. Loughry has not responded and did not testify at the committee hearings.
One impeachment article accused Loughry of lying to the House Finance Committee in January about his involvement in his office renovations, including a custom-designed wooden-inlay map showing all 55 West Virginia counties embedded in the floor.
Loughry was suspended earlier this year. Justice Menis Ketchum retired and agreed to plead guilty to a federal wire fraud count involving the personal use of state-owned vehicles and fuel cards.
A special election already is set in November to fill the remainder of Ketchum's term.
Circuit judge Paul T. Farrell has been sworn in to act as the court's chief justice for the Senate trial, whose timeline is uncertain. The court's fall term starts in early September. In the event that one or more justices is on trial in the Senate, the court said last week it would hear all cases on the docket as scheduled.
The last time the Legislature was involved in similar proceedings was 1989, when state Treasurer A. James Manchin was impeached by the House of Delegates after the state lost $279 million invested in the bond market. Manchin resigned before the state Senate took up the impeachment measure. He was never charged and the state recovered $55 million from lawsuits against nine New York brokerage firms involved in the losses.
This story has been corrected to show that Aug. 14 is special election deadline if a justice leaves office, not being impeached.