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Legislative auditors laud Supreme Court for improving accountability

Legislative majority leaders commended the West Virginia Supreme Court on Tuesday for its work to establish better accountability in the wake of systemic problems that lead to the impeachment of Court justices in 2018.

The state’s highest court received an approving report from the Legislative Auditor’s Office for establishing, revising and implementing policies to manage its resources, and that report was presented to members of the Legislature’s Post Audit Subcommittee Tuesday morning.

In his report to the committee, audit manager Adam Fridley said the court has taken action on 11 policies since June 2018, when legislative auditors began their review of the court’s policies and practices.

Of those policies, six were new and five were updates to existing policies.

Justices and court staff have taken steps to establish and enforce policies regarding travel policies, purchasing routine office supplies and proper use of state-issued credit cards, commonly referred to as purchasing cards or P-cards.

The court also established a bidding procedure for purchases costing more than $10,000, Fridley said.

The issues with the use of state vehicles and P-cards, the method of payment for senior status judges, state furniture, and the cost of renovations to Supreme Court offices were the grounds on which the House of Delegates impeached four justices in August 2018.

Justice Beth Walker was one of the justices to be impeached by House members, and she was the only justice who stood trial in the Senate, where she was admonished but not removed from office following a two-day trial.

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, was vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during impeachment proceedings and was part of the team of managers who, in effect, served as prosecutors in the impeachment trial.

On Tuesday, Hanshaw, who is a co-chairman of the subcommittee, thanked Chief Justice Tim Armstead and Walker for their work, saying “that if you give criticism in public, you ought to give praise in public.”

“So let me take this opportunity to give praise in public,” Hanshaw said. “It was my unfortunate task to be the spokesperson last summer for the need for some reform. We see it this morning. I’m extraordinarily pleased with this report, with everything that’s been done.”

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, reiterated that support and said the past couple of years had been a difficult time for the people of West Virginia and its court system.

“This [report] gives us a lot of confidence that we have accountability and transparency at the highest levels of government,” Carmichael said.

Fridley said prior to June 2018, most of the court’s policies regarding certain functions and systems in the state’s court system were too informal, outdated, or didn’t exist at all.

“These policies overall strengthen the control environment in the court,” Fridley said.

The only issues auditors had with the policies were they were a little unclear as to how they would be applied to justices of the court, Fridley said, but the justices responded to the report by taking steps to clarify the language of the relevant policies.

“It certainly has been our intent, and remains our intent, that the policies referred to in the audit report apply to the Justices of the Supreme Court,” Armstead said in a written response to the initial report.

Armstead and Walker addressed committee members Tuesday.

Walker was chief justice in 2019, and she said Tuesday she and the other four justices went to great lengths to establish new policies last year.

“As I promised the Senate I would, I made the emphasis of my tenure as chief getting those policies and procedures in place,” Walker said. “The five justices worked as a team to do it. I’m happy to report it was our highest priority to make sure we did this quickly and responsibly.”

Reach Lacie Pierson at lacie.pierson@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1723 or follow @laciepierson on Twitter.

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