Gov. Justice’s business practices back in the spotlight

Photo by Steven Allen Adams Gov. Jim Justice speaks at a rally during the 2018 general election in November at Tri-State Airport in Huntington where President Trump participated.

CHARLESTON — Recent articles and a federal investigation have returned to the forefront Gov. Jim Justice’s reputation for ignoring his tax debts, flouting mine safety fines and not paying vendors providing services to his businesses.

An article in a nationally known business publication caused Justice to lash out through social media on Tuesday. Justice posted a statement on his non-governmental Twitter account in response to the article in Forbes magazine criticizing the governor’s expansive list of back taxes and unpaid bills for some of his 117 business entities.

Forbes published an article in its April 30 issue by energy reporter Christopher Helman. The article is “The Deadbeat Billionaire: The Inside Story of How West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice Ducks Taxes and Slow-Pays His Bills.”

“Since 2016 courts have ordered Justice and his companies to pay more than $10 million to more than a dozen suppliers, workers and government entities,” Helman wrote. “Over the same time, his companies also piled up $13 million-plus in tax liens. He claims to have paid off many of these. Still looming: another $60 million in potential damages in a civil case awaiting final judgment, plus up to $3 million in fines in Kentucky.”

Helman also writes that Justice’s coal companies have nearly $100 million in reclamation liabilities in Virginia. The article goes on to point out instances of Justice not paying vendors for his businesses, the multiple instances of federal courts ruling against Justice and ignoring those rulings and the attempts by his own attorneys to collect money owed to him.

Justice hit back hard against Forbes and the Houston-based Helman, calling the piece a “hit job” and an “attack.” Despite the pushback, Justice never cites what was incorrect about the article. Instead, Justice blamed the economic environment created by former Gov. Joe Manchin and former President Barack Obama for hurting his businesses.

“This is a factually incorrect political hit-job from a New York reporter,” Justice said on Twitter. “The fact of the matter is that Obama-Manchin era policies devastated these businesses like many others throughout West Virginia. I’m not a politician, I’m a businessman — and a damned good one. The thousands of West Virginians whose jobs I’ve saved agree with me.”

In an April 5 story by Ohio Valley ReSource, a project of multiple public media outlets spread across Appalachia, it was revealed that Justice’s coal mine operations continue to be delinquent in paying off fines. Reporters Alexandra Kanik and Brittany Patterson found that these coal companies owe more than $4.3 million in fines from mine safety violations, a number that has doubled since Justice won election as governor in 2016.

“The Justice companies still have the highest delinquent mine safety debt in the U.S. mining industry,” according to the article. “The delinquent penalties were accrued between June 2009 and August 2018 at 71 mines in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia. Collectively, the Justice companies’ unpaid fines and penalties account for nearly 10 percent of all delinquent debt owed by mining companies in the U.S.”

Since becoming governor, Justice turned over the operation of the Greenbrier Resort to his daughter Jill and his coal companies to his son Jay. But out of the 117 companies listed on Justice’s financial disclosure form with the West Virginia Ethics Commission, only two businesses were placed in blind trusts — the Glade Springs Resort in Raleigh County and the Wintergreen Resort in neighboring Virginia.

“Rather than cut and run, my family and I stepped up to the plate and turned these distressed, bankrupt businesses around,” Justice said. “It’s been a long battle, but every tax has been paid or will be paid. To characterize me as a deadbeat is just dead wrong. I’ve always tried to do right by saving jobs and caring for people just like I did with the Greenbrier.”

In August, Justice held a press conference announcing that his West Virginia and local county tax debt had been paid in full, though it was never revealed how much was paid or whether the state settled for a lesser amount. As of the end of 2016, Justice and his companies owed the state $4.71 million.

“I think we can put to bed once and for all this tax issues that has been looming around forevermore,” Justice said during a press conference with state tax officials in August. “I’ve told you for months and months that any obligation I wouldn’t walk away from.”

Justice’s business practices could be the target of a Department of Justice investigation. The department’s Public Integrity Section issued a grand jury subpoena to the state Department of Commerce in March for records regarding state sponsorship of the Greenbrier Classic, now known as A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier.

Old White Charities, the non-profit that operates the PGA tournament, was $3.7 million in debt according to its 2017 tax forms, with $15.3 million in liabilities. Justice ordered an end to state sponsorship of the golf tournament after becoming governor, though the Greenbrier Resort is one of the many Justice-owned companies not in a blind trust.

Sensing political trouble for Justice, who switched from Democrat to Republican the summer of 2017, President Donald Trump is stepping up to help the beleaguered governor. According to Politico, two staffers with the Trump 2020 re-election campaign, Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, are joining the Justice campaign as advisers.

Three people have already filed as Republican pre-candidates to challenge Justice, including former Berkeley County delegate and defeated state Senate candidate Mike Folk. The primary filing period starts in January.

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