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West Virginia campaign finance probe ends amid questions

December 19, 2017

This photo taken Oct. 3, 2012, shows West Virginia Supreme Court candidate, Democratic incumbent, Robin Jean Davis. State investigations into a series of 2012 re-election campaign contributions to a West Virginia Supreme Court justice have concluded without prosecutions. But questions remain about several $1,000 donations linked to a Mississippi lawyer who had a major case before the five-member court. In June, the secretary of state’s chief legal counsel asked prosecutors to further investigate what he alleged was the “unlawful” bundling of campaign donations for Justice Davis of at least $6,000 by Florida by attorney Michael Fuller Jr. and a business associate. (Craig Cunningham /The Daily Mail via AP)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — State investigations into a series of 2012 re-election campaign contributions to a West Virginia Supreme Court justice have concluded without prosecutions, but questions remain about several $1,000 donations linked to a Mississippi personal injury lawyer who had a major case before the five-member court, records obtained by The Associated Press show.

In June, the secretary of state’s chief legal counsel Stephen Connolly asked Kanawha County prosecutors to further the investigation he began into what he alleged was “unlawful” bundling of campaign donations from Florida by attorney Michael Fuller Jr. and business associate Steven Edwards to Justice Robin Jean Davis, then chief justice at the state’s top court.

Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Charles Miller wrote back two months later, saying a five-year statute of limitation had expired on most of the suspect donations and would expire in September on the rest. His office had examined 17 donor checks.

“The types of events described in the report constitute misdemeanor criminal offenses,” Miller wrote.

Calls to Fuller, based in Hattiesburg, Miss., and Edwards, owner of a landscaping business in Plant City, Fla., were not returned.

The secretary of state’s office declined comment on the investigation or whether it has changed the way it reviews $1,000 checks — West Virginia’s limit for campaign donations — from out-of-state donors.

Miller told The Associated Press that nothing investigators saw indicated that Justice Davis or her campaign knew or did anything improper.

Her attorney James Cole, said, in response to AP’s requests for comment, that they have nothing to add to what the prosecutor said about Davis’ campaign.

The top court’s five justices are elected to 12-year terms. Davis, a Democrat first elected in 1996 to fill an unexpired term, has been re-elected twice.

The investigations began with an elections complaint early in 2017 filed by a Charleston political consultant, Roman Stauffer, head of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. He said it followed press a report in March scrutinizing campaign contributions to Davis’ re-election in 2012 and previous reports about Fuller’s 2011 purchase of a private jet from Davis’ husband, trial attorney Scott Segal — for more than $1 million — when his big case appeared headed to her court.

Davis subsequently wrote the divided court’s 2014 decision that reduced from $91.5 million to $38 million a jury award to the family of a neglected nursing home patient who died from dehydration in a chronically understaffed facility. She rejected Manor Care Inc.’s arguments to slash the award to $1 million under West Virginia’s medical malpractice limits. Fuller’s law firm, representing the family, got $17.1 million.

After prosecutors decided in August not to bring a criminal case over the campaign contributions, Stauffer filed a Freedom of Information request that led to the release of the investigative files, which were shared with AP.

“We think sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Stauffer said.

Connolly had gone to Florida but was able to interview only one of six people whose campaign checks to Davis he was initially investigating. Two $1,000 checks were written by Edwards’ wife, one in her maiden name, he wrote.

Kanawha County Deputy Prosecutor Robert Schulenberg, who took up the investigation, requested and examined checks sent by 17 people from Florida and Mississippi. Campaign finance records show 21 people from those states gave Davis $31,000.

Records show Davis received more than $483,000 in total contributions for her 2012 race, including more than 300 checks for the maximum, many from practicing attorneys. She spent $1.29 million, loaning another $860,000 of her own money to her effort.

West Virginia says its donation limits to a candidate of $1,000 for a primary and $1,000 for a general election are to prevent improper influence on candidates and safeguard the election process.

Oscar Villanueva told Connolly in a recorded interview included in the investigator’s file that Edwards, with whom he started the landscaping company S&O Greenworks in Plant City, asked him to write a personal check to a West Virginia politician Villanueva didn’t know and told him that Fuller would reimburse the money. He said the lawyer was Edwards’ longtime friend and did some legal work for the company.

Fuller told ABC’s Nightline in 2014 that the plane was a good deal and that he’d encouraged friends to donate to Davis’ campaign and had no problem doing that with an important case pending before her.

Davis told ABC she had no business relationship with Fuller, the jet sale was her husband’s and was done through a broker, and she saw no reason to recuse herself from Fuller’s case. “Why should I?” she said.

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