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Maynard trip raising more questions

Jan. 15, 2008 @ 11:13 PM

HUNTINGTON -- The chief judge of West Virginia's highest court is denying there was anything improper about his vacation to the French Riviera, where he was photographed with a top coal executive who was seeking a reversal on a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

Meanwhile, a local candidate for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals is calling for an investigation.

Photos have surfaced showing Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard, who is up for re-election, in Monaco with Massey Energy Co. head Don Blankenship, in 2006. The photos were part of a motion filed by Hugh M. Caperton in an effort to get Maynard to disqualify himself from a case between Caperton and Massey.

Ten of the photos were filed sealed, and show Maynard and Blankenship with female companions traveling with them, according to the Associated Press.

Maynard was one of three justices who voted last year to reverse a 2002 jury decision in Boone County that awarded Caperton more than $76 million after finding Massey stole a coal contract from Caperton's business, Harman Mining Corp., and ruined the company financially. The Supreme Court's opinion was filed Nov. 20, 2007.

"The suggestion I have done something improper is nonsense," Maynard said in a statement released Tuesday. "Like most judges, I don't reward my friends, or punish my enemies, from the bench.

"I have never denied my friendship with Mr. Blankenship," he added. "Our friendship has never influenced any decision I've made for the court."

Maynard went on to say that he paid for his own travel expenses and hotel expenses on the trip to France, and had receipts to prove it.

The chief justice has not yet filed a written response to the motion for recusal, which was filed Monday in an amended form that included the photos. The original motion was filed last week.

Blankenship told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he and Maynard decided to meet in Monaco after learning they would both be in the area at the same time. A Massey spokesman had earlier said that he did not believe the two had coordinated their vacation plans.

"I don't know if it's totally a coincidence," Blankenship said. "I know that we didn't travel together, we didn't vacation together. ... It just happens to be more sexy because of the location, I guess."

Supreme Court spokeswoman Jennifer Bundy said that the 10 sealed photos among two dozen other pictures were not sealed by the court, but were filed that way by Caperton.

"When something is filed sealed, it remains sealed until a motion is filed to unseal it," she said.

Huntington attorney Menis Ketchum, who is seeking a seat on the Supreme Court, said the entire issue needs to be looked at carefully.

"I am deeply concerned about the very serious Monaco vacation events," he said. "If true, it threatens the integrity of the West Virginia judicial system. It is in the best interest of the Supreme Court for there to be a complete, open and transparent investigation into these matters."

A spokesman for Massey said it was a coincidence that Blankenship and Maynard were in Monaco at the same time, and that the two were vacationing separately, according to the AP. Time-stamped photos show the pair together on three different days.

The spokesman said Blankenship and Maynard were staying at hotels about 13 miles apart, and met up occasionally for lunch and dinner.

The AP also reported that a month after the Monaco trip, Massey sued the Supreme Court over its policy on recusal requests. Attorneys for Massey had asked Supreme Court Justice Larry V. Starcher to recuse himself from the case over comments Starcher made to the media regarding Blankenship's $3.5 million in donations to help elect Justice Brent Benjamin to the Supreme Court in 2004. Benjamin's win unseated Warren V. McGraw, who had typically gone against coal companies in litigation that came before the court.

Both Benjamin and Maynard voted to overturn the ruling against Massey, along with Justice Robin Davis.

Marybeth Beller, a professor of political science at Marshall University, said Massey's request to remove Starcher may have opened the door for Caperton to request the same thing, even though Starcher never removed himself from the case.

"We do have a precedent with Justice Starcher being asked to recuse himself when statements appeared that they thought were biased against a Massey executive," she said. "If we have documentation that there is a friendship (between Maynard and Blankenship), it might not be proper to judge a case in which your friend is a litigant."

West Virginia is a small state, Beller said, and it is almost expected that two men from Mingo County like Maynard and Blankenship would be familiar with one another.

"I don't think it is unusual that those two people would know each other and be friends," she said. "But what is important is that fairness be maintained.

"I think, in terms of action from the court, they should look at the precedent set, and Maynard should recuse himself because of a conflict of personal interest."

Carol Warren, a coordinator with the West Virginia Coalition for Clean Elections, said the situation with the state's high court is another example of why election funding should come from public sources.

"I think one of the key parts of our work is trying to eliminate special interest influence from our elections at all levels," she said. "When we see something that indicates perhaps contributions have helped someone gain influence or purchase access to a particular public official, it confirms to us the need for a different system that makes that less likely to happen."

The coalition supports a bill before the state Legislature seeking a system that requires candidates to raise a certain amount of money in small contributions from registered voters in their district. Once that amount is raised, the candidate would be eligible for an amount of public funding for the campaign.

"It would cost about $5 to $6 per household to provide that funding," Warren said. "That's a very small amount to pay to ensure that the candidates are accountable only to the voters."

The bill in question only applies to the state Senate and House of Delegates. It does not address judicial elections.

"That isn't part of our bill right now, but it could be," Warren said.

The photos prompted a Monday memo from Larry Starcher, urging court administrator Steve Canterbury to preserve any evidence of "inappropriate contacts" between the two men.

Starcher wants Canterbury to "provide all Court staff with assurances that their truthful disclosure of any relevant information will not be penalized."

He also wants Canterbury to ensure "that no documents be destroyed, or computers records, on servers or otherwise, of any document or digital photographs, be altered, removed or erased."

A Supreme Court spokeswoman did not immediately comment on the memo.