CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A retired West Virginia Supreme Court justice is now a convicted felon.
Menis Ketchum pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court to a felony count of fraud related to his personal use of a state vehicle and gas fuel card in a scandal that has led to upcoming impeachment trials for the remaining justices.
U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart announced Ketchum’s agreement to plead guilty soon after the 75-year-old justice retired in July. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Sentencing is set for Dec. 6.
The four other justices were impeached last week by the House of Delegates. Justice Robin Davis retired hours later. She and Justices Allen Loughry, Margaret Workman and Beth Walker face trial in the Senate.
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The impeachment probe was sparked by questions involving more than $3 million in renovations to the justices’ offices and expanded to broader accusations of corruption, incompetence and neglect of duty. The scandal prompted an extraordinary move by one branch of government to essentially fire another.
Davis and some Democratic lawmakers have accused the Republican-led legislature of turning what they said was a legitimate pursuit of charges against Loughry into a blatant attempt to take over the court. Others insisted the impeachment process was an attempt to restore public confidence in the court.
Ketchum abruptly announced in a short, handwritten letter July 11 that he would step down effective July 27. The letter gave no reason for his resignation.
The charge against Ketchum was related to a 400-mile trip in 2014 where he used a state-owned car to drive from his home in Huntington to a private golf club near Bristol, Virginia, using a state credit card to refuel.
Ketchum was charged in a federal information document, which signals a defendant is cooperating. Stuart has said even though Ketchum faced one count, the federal information “sets forth a pattern of wrongdoing.” Court documents show Ketchum traveled to the golf club from 2011 through 2014.
The retirements of Ketchum and Davis ahead of an Aug. 14 deadline for justices to step down or be removed meant their replacements would be decided by voters, not Republican Gov. Jim Justice. A special election will be held in November to fill their unexpired terms. No interim justices have been named in their place to serve until the election is certified. The court is in recess and announced Thursday that the start of its fall term has been pushed back a month to October.
Republican U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, former Democratic Senate President Jeff Kessler and eight other candidates have filed to run for Davis’ seat. House Speaker Tim Armstead, who resigned earlier this week, and nine other candidates have filed to run for the seat Ketchum vacated. The election is officially nonpartisan.
Loughry was suspended from the court and faces a 25-count federal indictment over allegations in part that he repeatedly lied about using his office for personal gain. The indictment against Loughry includes charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, lying to federal law enforcement, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. His trial is set for Oct. 2.
Loughry faces six impeachment charges related to accusations of spending $363,000 on office renovations, taking home a $42,000 antique desk owned by the state and lying to a House committee. Loughry, Walker and Workman all face charges of abusing authority by failing to control office expenses and not maintaining policies about the use of state vehicles, office computers at home and other matters.
Workman faces two separate impeachment articles related to accusations that she allowed senior status judges to be paid higher wages than are allowed.
Davis remains part of the impeachment articles approved by the House of Delegates. A majority of the 34-member Senate would have to remove any justice from the articles in order to avoid trial. A conviction at trial could mean a justice would be disqualified from holding public office.