W. Va. Court says it can't investigate Maynard-Blankenship friendship

John O'Brien Mar. 6, 2008, 10:39am




CHARLESTON, W. Va. - While West Virginia Supreme Court hopeful Bob Bastress is calling for a special group to probe the Chief Justice's relationship with the head of a large corporation, the Court's administrator says there is no need to get all worked up.

Steve Canterbury responded Thursday to Bastress' Wednesday letter that seconded Justice Larry Starcher's request for the appointment of an independent commission to look into Chief Justice Spike Maynard's friendship with Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

Maynard and Blankenship were photographed in Monaco, though the two claim the meeting was purely coincidental. They have been friends since their childhoods in Mingo County, and Maynard has recused himself from all Massey cases.

"I'm telling (Bastress) today that my office does not have the power to investigate," Canterbury said. "We are not thus enabled.

"And I am just going to remind him in the letter that any of these kinds of issues need to be addressed by the Judicial Investigation Commission and counsel Skip Garten."

Garten and his crew of investigators, mostly retired FBI agents, Canterbury said, are the state office designed to "determine whether probable cause exists to formally charge a judge with a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct."

Nine members, all appointed by the Supreme Court, make up the Commission.

Canterbury said he understands the desire for something to be done when issues like Maynard's arise, but wants to remind Bastress, one of several Democrats making a run at two seats (including Maynard's) on the Court, that the Court's normal procedures are in place for a reason.

"A great deal of hysteria surrounds them, and the histrionics begin to play out, and there's a feeling that we need to get a special something-a-rather that's different from the way the structure works, but in a way that's damaging to the institution," Canterbury said.

"The Court's structure and solidity are tried and true procedures giving people confidence that the Court is strong and won't get distracted by the emotions of the moment."

Maynard was part of a November 3-2 ruling that overturned a $60 million Boone County verdict for Harman Mining Co. against Massey. With interest, the figure had increased to $76 million, but three of the justices determined that a forum-selection clause in the disputed coal contract required any actions to be brought in a county in Virginia.

Shortly after, Harman owner Hugh Caperton produced photographs of Blankenship and current Maynard together in Monaco. Maynard admitted he is a longtime friend of Blankenship's, claimed the two coincidentally were vacationing at the same place at the same time and provided documentation that showed Massey did not pay for his trip.

Since then, the justices unanimously decided to hear Harman's case again. Maynard has already recused himself from it and was joined by Starcher.

Maynard also recused himself from Massey's appeal of a $240 million Brooke County verdict in favor of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. and Mountain State Carbon.

Starcher has encouraged Justice Brent Benjamin, whose 2004 campaign was largely helped by the millions of dollars Blankenship spent in an effort to oust Warren McGraw, to do the same. Benjamin has said he will not step down.

Bastress wrote that restoring the public's confidence in the court requires answers to seven questions:

-Has the Court taken any steps to initiate an independent investigation of Justice Maynard's involvement with Mr. Blankenship, one conducted by persons outside the Court's influence? If not, does the Court intend to do so?;

-Has there been an inquiry as to who paid for meals and entertainment on Justice Maynard's trip to Nice and Monaco? Who paid for transportations while he was there?;

-Did Mr. Blankenship front or otherwise provide Justice Maynard or the woman who accompanied him with any money, whether in cash or in gambling chips, to use for gambling during the trip? If so, how much?;

-Has Justice Maynard ever flown on Massey Corporate aircraft? If so, when and where?;

-Has Justice Maynard ever vacationed or traveled to any other destination and met with, by accident or design, Don Blankenship?;

-Will Justice Maynard release a list of his contributors early so the public can see if he has received support from Mr. Blankenship or his associates?; and

-Will Justice Maynard release his e-mail and phone records, and those of any employee who traveled with him to France or Monte Carlo, for the month before and the month after the trip?

Bastress' letter noted that federal judges in Manhattan will not have lunch with old friends while their cases are pending before the court, and that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has said "friendship is a ground for recusal of a justice where the personal fortune or the personal freedom of a friend is at issue."

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