Former justice describes career low point during testimony in Loughry trial

October 7, 2018

CHARLESTON — Contention among West Virginia Supreme Court employees and the secret taping of a meeting were among some of the testimony Friday in the criminal trial of suspended Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry.

The day began with cross examination of former justice Brent Benjamin, who described one of the low points of his 12-year term on the court.

So far, 17 witnesses have testified in Loughry’s trial, which began Wednesday. Loughry is charged with 16 counts of wire fraud, three counts of mail fraud and three counts of making false statements to federal investigators.

The trial is set to reconvene at 9:30 a.m. Monday, despite the Columbus Day holiday.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Phillip Wright and Greg McVey are prosecuting the case, and Charleston attorney John Carr is representing Loughry.

‘I was scared’

As the court’s director of administrative services, Kim Ellis manages the fleet of state-owned vehicles available to the court and helped to coordinate years’ worth of renovations at the court.

On Oct. 19, 2017, Loughry and then-Court Administrator Gary Johnson, called Ellis in for a meeting, she said.

“I was scared,” Ellis said, so she recorded the meeting.

During the meeting, Loughry and Johnson asked if Ellis had records of how much the justices’ office renovations cost, and she said she didn’t have them.

In court, Wright played audio from the meeting. In it, Loughry asked Ellis if she remembered him saying he wanted his office renovations to cost less than those of Ketchum’s and Workman’s offices, and she said she didn’t recall then.

On the stand Friday, Ellis said she didn’t recall that particular conversation because it never happened.

That meeting took place nine months after Loughry fired longtime court employees, including former court administrator Steve Canterbury.

Ellis said she recalled Loughry fired Canterbury on Jan. 4, 2017. That evening she was at her son’s soccer practice when she got a call on her personal cellphone from Loughry. Loughry told Ellis the call was off the record, she said.

“He said, ‘It’s my understanding you’re loyal or a spy for Steve, but it’s OK; we like you,’” Ellis recalled Loughry saying during the phone call. He then told her to report to work the next morning and remove Canterbury’s name from his office door.

‘Justices aren’t supposed to bond’

Under cross examination by Carr, former justice Benjamin said the contention that arose during the summer and fall 2016 was one of the lowest points of his term.

Benjamin told the jury “Justices aren’t supposed to bond” because they should independently consider the law on a case-by-case basis. Instead, he said, the working relationship among the justices was most important.

That working relationship was tested starting in August 2016 as then-Justice Robin Davis attempted to explore establishing travel and vehicle policies, Benjamin said.

That led to a quarrelsome memo exchange among Davis, Loughry, Court Security Director Arthur Angus and deputy security director Jess Gundy, in August 2016, according to testimony Thursday.

One of the arguments in the memos was based on Loughry’s decision to not tell the other justices, security staff or fleet management staff where he took state-owned vehicles he borrowed from the court.

Benjamin said the lowest point in the policy skirmish came during the court’s next administrative conference on Sept. 7, 2016, among Loughry, Davis, Benjamin, Justice Margaret Workman and former justice Menis Ketchum.

Benjamin thought justices were to talk about the travel policies at the conference, but when he arrived, he learned that Loughry, Ketchum and Workman already decided the justices should stop pursuing the travel policies, Benjamin said.

Angus and Gundy both said Loughry told them he didn’t know where the other justices went, and it was none of the other justices’ “effing business” where he was going in the vehicles.

In other testimony Friday:

Arthur and Supreme Court Messenger and Runner Paul Mendez told their perspectives about the week of Nov. 27, 2017, when they and Gundy helped Loughry move a state-owned couch and later a Cass Gilbert desk from Loughry’s home.

Jen nifer Bundy, public information officer for the court, said she told reporters in November 2017 that Loughry had the furniture as part of a “longstanding policy” that allowed the justices to have home offices. Bundy said she wasn’t personally familiar with the policy, but Loughry, who was chief justice at the time, gave her the information, and she wasn’t in a position to question his interpretation.

Bundy also responded to a media request about the furniture, but she didn’t mention that the desk in Loughry’s home was a Cass Gilbert desk, even though she knew the desk’s significance.

“I was trying to protect him,” Bundy said.

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