Down in West Virginia, Gilbert desk lands judge in hot water

Beware the Gilbert desk, oh judge, the jaws that flap, the clerks that snitch...

Main Street’s marble fountain is likely the late architect Cass Gilbert’s signature decorative statement in the minds of most Ridgefielders. But to West Virginians, Gilbert may be best known for ornate desks that furnished the Capitol building he designed there nearly a century ago — desks that now have a cameo role in the impeachment of the state’s entire Supreme Court.

In mid-August, the West Virginia state legislature’s House of Delegates passed articles of impeachment — 11 of them — against the four sitting justices of the state’s top court, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

Extravagant spending on office renovations and decorations — a $32,000 blue suede sofa (sorry, Elvis, no shoes), and $1,000 for the obligatory throw pillows — got the impeachment thing going.

A “Cass Gilbert desk” got involved not for having been purchased at an eye-popping price with taxpayers’ funds, but for having spent some time in residence in a judge’s house, rather than at the state building that had originally been its home.

Ridgefielder Ann Lundberg noted the connection to Cass Gilbert, a former owner and resident in the Keeler Tavern building as well as a renowned architect, when she heard a radio broadcast about the West Virginia Supreme Court impeachments.

“I am just a member of Keeler Tavern who happened to hear the news — as I was driving — that all of the Supreme Court justices were facing impeachment, primarily for extravagant lifestyles funded by taxpayers,” she told The Press.

“And then even more astonishing was the news that Ridgefield’s Cass Gilbert’s desk was one of the lavish items taken from the Statehouse for furnishing one justice’s own home,” she said. “I guess local press publicized it and the lovely desk, valued at $42,000, was returned, but was the one item — of many lavish expenditures or thefts — mentioned in the newscast...

“Cass Gilbert’s importance across the U.S. is well known — but so far as I know the first time in a crime investigation,” Lundberg said.

She also saw a video in which a West Virginia state historical specialist said that Cass Gilbert’s architectural contract included the furnishings of the State Capitol building, with the result that West Virginian “had about 10 grand desks— fewer now.”  

The Cass Gilbert connection appears to have had considerable significance in the story down in West Virginia.

A July 19 story by WV News — “the independent voice of West Virginia” —  begins with this:

“State Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry may have known a lot more than he told investigators about a rare Cass Gilbert desk that he allegedly took home and later tried to sneak back into a Supreme Court warehouse, according to testimony Thursday during House of Delegates impeachment hearings.

“Three Supreme Court security officials testified before the House Judiciary Committee that Loughry referred to the desk, which was allegedly in his home office, as having been designed by State Capitol architect Cass Gilbert.

“The security officials also testified that court employees frequently talked about the desk and other similar desks in the court as ‘Cass Gilbert desks.’”

Keeler Tavern Director Hildegard Grob said that Gilbert probably didn’t design the desks, but had role in picking them out, or approving their purchase, as part of his agreement to oversee the furnishing of the building he’d designed.

Tampering, lying, obstruction

Of course, there’s more to it than desks.

WV News reported that, “Loughry has been suspended from the court for alleged misuse of state property and state vehicles.”

In an Aug. 14 story on the West Virginia scandal, the Washington Post said: “Of the four impeached justices, one, Allen H. Loughry II, also faces 23 federal counts of fraud, witness tampering, lying to a federal agent and obstruction of justice. If convicted on all counts, he could face up to 405 years in prison and a fine of $5.75 million. He pleaded not guilty and was suspended without pay in June.”

The West Virginia episode may seem like run of the mill local corruption, albeit with a Cass Gilbert twist of interest to Ridgefielders.

But it’s also — as so many things seem to be these days — political and partisan.

An Aug. 14 New York Times story offered this account of some of the political backstory:

“Last fall, investigative TV news reports revealed lavish office renovation spending by Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry. The profligate spending seemed particularly abhorrent in a state as cash-strapped as West Virginia. More reports followed, on the spending by Justice Loughry but also by other justices, adding up to hundreds of thousand dollars on marble, stainless steel cabinets, and a $7,500 wooden inlaid medallion depicting West Virginia...

“No one has defended the lavish spending. But the prospect of a mass judicial impeachment struck opponents as a partisan power grab by Republicans who control the governor’s office and both houses of the State Legislature. On the Supreme Court bench, three of the five justices were elected as Democrats. Any temporary replacements would be named by the Republican governor, Jim Justice, and would sit on the bench until a new election, a period that could last up to a year and a half.

“A number of Democrats saw it, in the phrase of one lawmaker, as nothing less than ‘a coup.’ And in a rare moment of public agreement, the state chapter of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the state chamber of commerce called the impeachments an unwelcome precedent.”