Following Scandal-Filled 2018, Supreme Court Spending Still in Focus with Recent Transactions

Jan 15, 2019

After a year of scandal involving lavish spending that led to the entire bench of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals being impeached, the court gave a budget presentation to the Senate Finance Committee. While Supreme Court Chief Justice Beth Walker outlined the entire court system’s budget and the implementation of new spending policies Tuesday, attention was heavily focused on a recent transaction to a women’s clothing and lingerie retailer.

Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso questioned Walker about his discovery of three transactions made by the court in recent years to Victoria’s Secret.

According to the state auditor’s website that tracks state purchasing and payroll, the court’s most recent purchase at the retailer was a $69.95 payment on Jan. 2, 2019.

Walker said she learned of the the most recent expenditure Tuesday afternoon on Twitter and then said it was made on behalf of a probation officer who was purchasing a graduation gift for a juvenile drug court participant.

She also noted that drug court probation officers are authorized to use incentives to get participants to meet sobriety landmarks and other goals.

“The prior expenditures were gift cards. Gift cards were used until last summer -- last spring or summer -- when we completely discontinued that process,” Walker said. “Gift cards were purchased using ‘P-cards’ as incentives. You know, you buy a $10 McDonald's or Starbucks or [some other kind of] gift card.”

The use of gift card purchases through state issued “P-cards” was discontinued in the midst of an investigation into the court’s spending over the course of recent years.

Following questioning from Senate Finance Chair Craig Blair, Supreme Court finance director Sue Racer-Troy explained drug court incentive purchases are listed as “miscellaneous.”

Racer-Troy said the most recent transaction was made by a Monongalia County probation officer who bought three personal items of clothing from Victoria’s Secret as an incentive for a juvenile drug court graduate.

“We didn't know in the finance office until we received this transaction detail that they made the purchase on Dec. 3, 2018,” Racer-Troy said. “When that came in, we notified them that this is really not something we should be doing. We should not be buying Victoria's Secret for drug court participants.”

“Make no mistake, I am not opposed to incentives in any way,” Blair said following Racer-Troy’s explanation. “Different things drive different people. I get that.”

But Blair added that he thinks the spending could have been used in better ways.

“It would be my thought that, moving forward, West Virginia is a community — and I know in my area that businesses come to the aid all the time to be able to help out -- not to just promote their own wares. But they're also being part of the solution,” he said.

Prior to addressing the transactions to Victoria’s Secret, Walker delivered a presentation outlining the court system’s budget. She said new purchasing policies have been put in place following a nearly-year long spending scandal with the court that brought about federal charges and convictions, impeachments and resignations.

Walker told the Senate Finance Committee the court system has proposed a $131.7 million budget for Fiscal Year 2020 --  roughly $8.5 million less than Fiscal Year 2019.

Her presentation comes just months after she stood trial before the West Virginia Senate for her role in a year-long scandal that brought about federal convictions, impeachments and three resignations from the five-justice bench. In October, Walker was acquitted on one article of impeachment for failing to provide administrative oversight of the court.

Soon after impeachment proceedings were stalled by an order from an ad hoc bench of the state’s high court, Walker took the position of chief justice. Since her trial -- and while in the process of taking over as the top justice -- Walker has called for increased transparency from the judiciary.

“My commitment to greater transparency and accountability in the judicial branch is unwavering, and I am ready to work with the Legislature toward better oversight of the Court’s budget,” Walker said in a news release in late October announcing she would take over as chief justice.

In November, West Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment that will put the court system’s budget back in the hands of the Legislature. Beginning in 2021, the Legislature has the authority to reduce the Supreme Court’s budget by up to 15 percent of the previous year’s allocation.