Ex-West Virginia Justice Gets Probation in Corruption Probe

Mar 6, 2019

A former West Virginia Supreme Court justice was sentenced to three years’ probation Wednesday for using a state vehicle and gas fuel card for a golf trip to Virginia.

Menis Ketchum’s sentencing in federal court came at the end of a yearlong impeachment and corruption scandal involving the Supreme Court that resulted in significant changes to the state’s judicial system, including the five-member court’s makeup.

The 76-year-old Ketchum, who pleaded guilty last year to a felony fraud count, also was fined $20,000 and ordered to pay $749 in restitution.

“I’m just plain guilty,” Ketchum told U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. just prior to sentencing. “And I’m sorry, but sorry’s no excuse.”

The judge said he took into account Ketchum’s age, his lack of prior criminal behavior and that he accepted responsibility for his actions — unlike former Justice Allen Loughry, who was sentenced last month to two years in federal prison in the same corruption probe.

Copenhaver also cited numerous letters written on Ketchum’s behalf, including by former Marshall University interim President Mike Farrell.

Copenhaver suggested that Ketchum use his freedom to his benefit by possibly seeking work as a paralegal. The state Supreme Court stripped Ketchum of his law license in October.

“It borders on the unfathomable that you would risk so much for so little,” Copenhaver told Ketchum, later adding, “The court recognizes your sincere regret for your conduct. This is a single blemish on a distinguished career.”

The charge was related to a 400-mile trip in 2014 where Ketchum used a state-owned car to drive from his home in Huntington to a private golf club near Bristol, Virginia, and used a state credit card to refuel. Court documents show Ketchum traveled to the club from 2011 through 2014.

U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart said he accepted the judge’s sentence.

“What can’t be lost here is he pleaded guilty to a felony,” Stuart said. “Public corruption of any type, of any sort, at any level is a serious infraction to the people of West Virginia.”

Impeachment

Ketchum retired in July before the House of Delegates impeached other Supreme Court justices over questions involving lavish office renovations that evolved into accusations of corruption, incompetence and neglect of duty. Some of the justices were accused of abusing their authority by failing to rein in excessive spending.

A temporary panel of justices later ruled the impeachment efforts violated the separation-of-powers doctrine and that the Legislature lacked jurisdiction to pursue the trials. The process was officially derailed when the presiding judge didn’t show up to one of the justice’s impeachment trials in the state Senate because of the decision.

The House is seeking a U.S. Supreme Court review in order to correct what it called legal errors in the decision. The state constitution gives the Legislature the sole power of impeachment. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw has said the earlier opinion “removes virtually all of the constitutional checks and balances we have on the judicial branch of government.”

Loughry was sentenced last month for using his job for his own benefit and lying to investigators. Loughry repeatedly denied benefiting personally from trips he took when he became a justice in 2013.

Loughry was suspended from the bench in June and resigned in November.

State lawmakers and others have said public trust in the state’s court system was broken by the actions of Loughry and others. Voters in November approved a ballot measure allowing the GOP-led Legislature to decide each year whether to reduce the courts’ budget.

Judicial elections in West Virginia became nonpartisan in 2016, but the court’s impeachment scandal stirred political attacks. Some Democrats argued the court’s shake-up was a power grab by Republicans.

Justice Robin Davis retired after the impeachment charges were announced. Two Republican former lawmakers were appointed in the place of Ketchum and Davis and later won election to complete their terms. Republican Gov. Jim Justice appointed a lifelong friend to replace Loughry until a 2020 special election.