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Statehouse Beat: Supreme Court justice paid $10,000 for outside opinion

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the state Supreme Court, at the request of Justice Beth Walker, had paid $21,502 to have a Dallas lawyer/author fly in July 28 and give a one-day seminar for new law clerks on how to write opinions.

That got a bit of blowback, with comments being that: (a) senior law clerks could, and have in the past, taught the same course for free, and (b) shouldn’t the court be hiring law clerks that already know how to write opinions?

Now comes documentation that the Supreme Court paid Pittsburgh lawyer Barbara Allen, a former West Virginia Supreme Court administrator and former managing deputy attorney general, $10,000 to ghostwrite an opinion for Justice Walker in Quicken Loans v. Walters, filed June 15. Allen charged the court $200 an hour, and capped her hours at 50.

There’s a precedent, in that the Supreme Court also paid Allen $10,000 to author a June 2016 opinion.

However, the circumstances were different in that case, as all five sitting justices recused themselves from hearing arguments in a petition to block two candidates for the Supreme Court, one being then-incumbent Justice Brent Benjamin, from receiving public financing for their campaigns under a new law.

The petitioner, coincidentally, was candidate Beth Walker, who after failing to deny opponents Benjamin and Bill Wooton their $500,000 per of public campaign financing, went on to spend nearly $750,000 on her campaign, while benefiting from about $3.5 million in ads from Republican and pro-business PACs.

With the highly unusual circumstance of all justices recusing themselves, senior status and circuit court judges were appointed to hear the case, and Allen was retained to write the opinion.

In submitting the 2017 invoice for Allen, Walker’s administrative assistant Whitney Humphrey advised, “Justice Walker understands Ms. Allen did work for the court last year, but wasn’t sure if she was still an approved vendor or if a formal contract is necessary.”

Court Administrative Director Gary Johnson responded, “Please send the invoice down, and we will take care of it.”

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Speaking of the court, we were finally given access to the vaunted Supreme Court warehouse to gaze upon the Cass Gilbert desk and Albright leather couch that, until recently, had been furnishings in Chief Justice Allen Loughry‘s home. Of course, it was one of those situations where being denied access made a much better story than actually being allowed to see what actually was there.

I have to say the couch looked worse for wear — if the ReStore had it priced at $500, I would pass — but the desk was impressive, and despite rumors to the contrary, appeared in remarkably good shape for a 90-year-old antique — at least the three sides that could be seen.

We confirmed that the desk is one of the original furnishings when the East Wing opened in 1927, hence the nickname as a “Cass Gilbert” desk.

With its return, four of the court’s original executive desks for the justices are accounted for — although that means at least one is missing, and there is debate as to whether there were originally seven desks, with the clerk and court administrator also having desks.

That means at least one and as many as three, antique walnut desks have wandered off campus over the years, perhaps borrowed by former justices or employees for home offices, and with staff turnover over the course of 12 to 24 years on the bench, no one remembered who had what state property.

Likewise, of the smaller but matching desks originally assigned to the five justices’ secretaries, only three can be accounted for.

I didn’t realize until this whole episode that the Capitol was a turnkey deal, with furnishings included. It’s hard to fathom over the years potentially how much historically significant property has ended up in people’s homes or private offices, at Surplus Property and sold for pennies on the dollar, or in dumpsters.

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Lots of personnel changes continuing in the Governor’s Office and state Senate, with the Senate continuing to serve as a farm team of sorts for gubernatorial staff.James Bailey goes from Senate Finance Committee counsel to special counsel for policy and legislation in the Governor’s Office, with a pay increase of $78,000 to $92,000.

However, his successor as Finance Committee counsel, the ethically reprimanded Robin Capehart, is starting at $85,000.

Also in the Senate, Stephanie Ojeda has gone from a per-diem attorney, pulling down about $12,500 per session, to full-time counsel to the Senate president, at a salary of $109,000.

Donnie Adkins, who went from counsel to the Senate majority leader to senior policy adviser in the Governor’s Office in September, following Gov. Jim Justice‘s party flip, has been promoted to a deputy chief of staff, with a pay increase of $18,000 to $110,000.

Meanwhile, the 2017 award for worst timing of the year has to go to Melanie Pagliaro, who was hired in the Governor’s Office as a senior policy analyst literally days before Justice announced his flip.

Although she came to the Governor’s Office from Health and Human Resources, where she was legislative liaison since 2015, Pagliaro has Democratic bona fides, having served as policy analyst for the House majority leader (later minority leader after the House went red) for three sessions prior to joining the DHHR.

Apparently, those bona fides were too much for the newly Republican Governor’s Office, and Pagliaro was given a choice to transfer to the Higher Education Policy Commission or to hit the road, and she chose the latter, leaving the Governor’s Office effective Dec. 8.

Rumor is that her transfer/ouster ultimatum was dictated by Justice’s new “citizen volunteer special assistant” Bray Cary, but Pagliaro said simply that, “The opportunity to transfer was given to me by the chief [of staff Mike Hall] and deputy chief.”

If true, that means that Hall waited roughly four months from the time he became chief of staff before concluding that Pagliaro was too blue to remain on staff — a conclusion reached within days after Cary’s arrival.

The closest parallel I can think of to the Cary controversy could be then-Gov. Joe Manchin‘s hiring of retired state personnel director Joe Smith as a consultant on personnel issues in 2005, raising the consternation of some over having a private citizen involved in state policy decisions.

Perhaps we should be thankful that Cary is a volunteer, considering that Smith collected a total of $468,235 in payments from the state before then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin terminated his contract in 2011.

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Finally, one more personnel change in the Governor’s Office before I put away the ESMT forms: In November, Brad Smith‘s job title was changed from housekeeper at the Governor’s Mansion to banquet supervisor, presumably since there’s not much housekeeping to be done with the Justices not living at the mansion. Speaking of, the Justices evidently hosted a very low-key Christmas party on Thursday, certainly nothing on the scale of the multiple parties that the Manchins hosted, with crowds so large that the state erected the infamous party tent to contain them.

Meanwhile, I was walking by Justice’s SUV outside the West Wing entrance when I was “buffooned” to discover that Justice has a West Virginia license plate (“Coal 3”), but a Virginia inspection sticker. I guess that’s about as close to bipartisan as we get these days.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

Funerals for Saturday, October 19,2019

Alexander, Jeanette - 11 a.m., Stockert-Paletti Funeral Home, Flatwoods.

Anderson, Dolores - 3 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Basham, Harry - 11 a.m., Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.

Bell, Don - 2 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.

Brown, Michele - 1 p.m., Grace Bible Church, Charleston.

Dooley, Ronnie - 2 p.m., Allen Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Dunbar, Jessie - 2 p.m., Ripley Church of Christ, Ripley.

Goodall, Emma - 2 p.m., Memorial Funeral Home, Princeton.

Grose, Roland - 1 p.m., Wilson-Smith Funeral Home, Clay.

Hedrick, Josephine - 1 p.m., Smathers Funeral Chapel, Rainelle.

Hopkins, Betty - 1 p.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens, Cross Lanes.

Hunt, Betty - 1:30 p.m., Good Shepherd Mortuary, South Charleston.

Jarrell, Linda - 2:30 p.m., Memory Gardens, Madison.

Jarvis, Monuey - 2 p.m., Unity Gospel Tabernacle, Nebo.

Lewis, Evelyn - 1 p.m., Cross Lanes Baptist Church, Cross Lanes.

McClanahan, Patricia - 2 p.m., Goff-McClanahan Cemetery, Charleston.

McDaniel, Janet - 1 p.m., Norway Avenue Church of Christ Activity Building, Huntington.

Midkiff, Ned - 2 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Mills, Harry - 1 p.m., Emmanuel Baptist Church, Charleston.

Neil Jr., Fred - 1 p.m., Jodie Missionary Baptist Church, Jodie.

O'Dell, Claytus - 2 p.m., Wallace & Wallace Chapel, Rainelle.

O'Leary, David - 11 a.m., Memory Gardens, Madison.

Park, Emily - 11 a.m., Old Stone Presbyterian Church, Lewisburg.

Rice, Katherine - 1 p.m., Bigson Freewill Baptist Church, Van.

White, Ella - Noon, Charleston Baptist Temple, Charleston.