CHARLESTON, W. Va. - Some critics are bothered by the timing of phone calls between West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher and candidate Menis Ketchum, saying the timeline "raise(s) serious questions."
The group West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse say 11 phone calls Starcher made to Ketchum from Jan. 11 to Jan. 17 hint that Starcher could have been involved in the release of photos showing Chief Justice Spike Maynard vacationing with Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship in Monaco.
WV CALA is calling for an investigation into the timing of the Starcher-Ketchum phone calls and the release of the Maynard-Blankenship photos.
"Candidate Ketchum says the reasons for the calls were to be sure that 'his friend,' incumbent Justice Larry Starcher was not seeking re-election," WV CALA Executive Director Steve Cohen said. "But Justice Starcher had already publicly stated the previous month that he was not running, and candidate Ketchum was actively raising money for the Supreme Court race prior to when the calls took place.
"These facts seem to run counter to the purpose of the phone calls as described by Justice Starcher and candidate Ketchum, and raise questions about what was really being discussed."
Last week, Starcher and Ketchum - "good friends since law school," Starcher said -- told The Record that the phone calls primarily concerned how Ketchum might run his campaign and to confirm that Starcher was not running for re-election.
The filing period to run for office was Jan. 14-26. Ketchum kicked off his campaign Dec. 12 during a press conference at the state Capitol, and he was the first Democratic candidate to file his candidacy papers for Supreme Court on Jan. 14. Starcher announced December that he would not seek the seat again.
The Maynard-Blankenship photos were filed as exhibits to a motion asking Maynard to recuse himself from rehearing a Massey appeal in a $76 verdict in favor of Harman Mining, which had sued Massey for forcing it into bankruptcy. Harman Mining's lawyers said they received the photos anonymously before filing the motion for Maynard's recusal on Jan. 14, which is the same day Ketchum filed his candidacy papers to run for Supreme Court.
On Wednesday, Ketchum dismissed CALA's claims.
"The first time I saw those photos were when they appeared in the newspaper," Ketchum said.
The Record first reported the phone calls last week after receiving a response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the state Supreme Court.
Cohen noted that at the time of the phone calls, "an attorney with a case before the Supreme Court was releasing evidence supposedly acquired somehow from a courthouse employee -- evidence that could have helped Ketchum's campaign."
"It makes us wonder what was really taking place on these calls since the stated purpose according to Ketchum and Starcher doesn't exactly make sense," Cohen said.
"The first call between Starcher and Ketchum was on Friday, January 11, and the photos were filed the Monday after that weekend in the Massey case as a motion for Justice Maynard to recuse himself," said Steve Cohen, executive director of WV CALA. "Candidate Kethcum, the very next day in his hometown newspaper, called for an investigation surrounding the photographs, even before Justice Starcher did."
Ketchum told Huntington's The Herald-Dispatch newspaper for the Jan. 15 edition that there needed to be "a complete, open and transparent investigation" into the Maynard-Blankenship photographs.
"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," Cohen said of Ketchum's comment.
In a story in Monday's Charleston Daily Mail, Ketchum said neither he nor Starcher were in any way involved in the filing of the photos.
"Absolutely not," Ketchum told Daily Mail reporter Justin Anderson.
Ketchum also addressed the issue that Starcher already had said he wouldn't be seeking re-election when the phone calls were made.
"I kept hearing persistent rumors, no doubt fueled by political opponents, that Justice Starcher would change his mind and run for re-election," Ketchum told the Daily Mail. "These rumors were impeding my ability to attract support to my campaign."
As of Thursday, Starcher had not responded to questions from The Record about the timing issues.
On Monday, Republican political consultant Gary Abernathy also questioned the timing of the calls and the photos on his Republican Gazette blog.
"Is there a connection?" Abernathy wrote. "Isn't it a question worth asking?"
Abernathy also suggested that Starcher might be "driving" the news story by calling national media outlets about it.
Maynard is running for re-election. In addition to Ketchum, former Justice Margaret Workman and West Virginia University law professor Bob Bastress are seeking the Democratic nominations in the May 13 primary. Charleston attorney Beth Walker is the only Republican to have filed.