Taking a look at state vehicle usage by West Virginia Supreme Court justices

These are the state-owned vehicles used by West Virginia Supreme Court justices. (Eyewitness News photo)

Each branch of government has state-owned vehicles in its fleet to help it accomplish its work. At the top of the judicial branch food chain is the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

For the past several years, court records obtained by the Eyewitness News iTeam show some justices have been using vehicles for their personal benefit, racking up tens of thousands of miles and thousands of dollars in fuel costs, paid for by you.

Justice Menis Ketchum was elected to his seat nearly a decade ago. In 2012, it was his turn to serve as chief justice. That year, Ketchum made a request to the court. He asked for permission to drive a state-owned silver Buick Lucerne from on his daily commute from Huntington to Charleston. The court granted his request.

"To be able to use the car that was about to be turned back in, traded in," Steve Canterbury, former court adminstrator of the West Virginia Supreme Court said. "And he said, rather than trade it in is it all right for me to drive the car back and forth from home to work and use it as a commuting vehicle? And the court said yes, that was all right. So, it was approved by the court. This wasn't something he did on his own. It was approved by the court."

Over the next four plus years, Justice Ketchum routinely used the state-owned car for his personal travel to work. The iTeam filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the court to examine its fleet usage. Court records show that starting in 2012 and continuing through the first half of 2016 , the credit card assigned to Ketchum's vehicle was used almost exclusively between Charleston and Huntington.

The stations appearing most often on the invoices are the Milton Exxon Mobil location just off of the Interstate 64 exit, with 265 visits. And the Marathon station on Hal Greer Boulevard in Huntington, with 23 visits.

The credit card bill for the vehicle the court allowed Ketchum to use averaged $242 a month. The total fuel costs paid for by taxpayers for the state car Ketchum used for his commute was $13,340.97. It's important to note it is possible that someone else used the car in a limited manner during the time it was assigned to Ketchum, however he was the primary driver.

"It's certainly quasi-private use," Canterbury said. "But it's also quasi-private use in that he was only to take it to the capitol and not anywhere else."

Besides local fuel locations, the gas receipts also show other spots around West Virginia and surrounding states where Justice Ketchum may have been representing the court on official business. On seven different occasions, the credit card was used in southwestern Virginia. The iTeam asked Justice Ketchum for comment about his personal use of a state vehicle and about what court business he was doing in that part of Virginia? Ketchum cited a legislative audit investigation into the court as his reason for declining to talk with us.

Ketchum isn't the only justice whose travel choices with state cars raises questions. Justice Allen Loughry's involvement with the court's fleet prompted a fellow justice to ask how state-owned vehicles were being used.

"Frankly, there were really no excesses that anybody ever noticed anyway, until Justice Loughry entered the picture," Canterbury said. "And he wasn't willing to tell people where he was taking the car and for what purpose."

Justice Robin Davis had concerns about missing information, reasons for use and destinations. Responding to her request, the court's Director of Security Arthur Angus said it was standard practice to verbally ask when the information was missing. However, he added, quote, "The only person we can recall that failed to provide a destination when asked was Justice Loughry."

"I'm not sure why he didn't feel that there was a need to tell why he was taking the car and for what court business, but he refused," Canterbury said.

Just two weeks after Angus' memo, Loughry led an effort to exempt justices from providing information on a Fleet Request Form. Justice Davis voted no, but the policy passed.

"Unless they've changed it since, that's the official policy of the court, that justices are not to be asked where they are taking the car or for what purpose," Canterbury said.

The records concerning Loughry's state vehicle usage are far from detailed. On many of the forms, no destination nor purpose for the trip were given. And the timing of many of Loughry's reservations raise additional questions. He has several instances of requesting a vehicle on a Friday for use over the weekend, returning it on Monday. Each year, the court traditionally goes into recess during the summer and month of December. Loughry has several instances of reserving a vehicle whent the court was not in session.

For three consecutive Decembers, Loughry reserved vehicles for extended periods of time, always over the Christmas holiday. From December 20, 2013 to January 2, 2014. From December 10, 2014 to January 5, 2015. And from December 18 to December 28, 2015, Loughry had a state vehicle, giving no reasons or destinations on the request form for why he need a taxpayer-funded car.

We asked if there were discussions at the court about Justice Loughry using state vehicles for his own personal use.

"There were discussions after the inquiries by Justice Davis," Canterbury said. "Because it did seem that there were a number of weekends and then those days that you said in December that there didn't seem to be any obvious business use. And he was not forthcoming about why he was taking the car and essentially said it was no one's business. He was an elected official, a justice of the court and if he deemed it was appropriate, it was appropriate."

The iTeam asked Justice Loughry about his state vehicle usage. We received no reply.

"As troubling as his use was his response when asked where are you taking it and he said I'm not going to tell you that," Canterbury said. "That's pretty troubling. And I think that that's the heart of the matter if anybody is looking at the car use."

On Monday, the West Virginia legislative auditor's office will present part one of its investigation into the state supreme court's vehicle practices. The legislative auditor's investigation was spurred by our Eyewitness News iTeam reports about the court, which have been airing for the past six months.

The legislative auditor's findings will be revealed to post Post Audit Subcommittee members Monday morning at 9. We will be there and give you updates on the court's spending and practices as more is revealed.

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