Reporter’s Notebook: Justice’s terrible, no good week
The pressure is mounting for Gov. Jim Justice, who was dealt several blows over the last week or so.
I wrote about most of these issues over the weekend, so I won’t re-hash them all in great detail. You already knew about the vote of no confidence by the Kanawha County Republican Executive Committee (the Harrison County Republican Executive Committee and the West Virginia Federation of College Republicans followed suit).
Again, we’re 10 months away from a primary and these no-confidence votes serve as a reverse-endorsement. More importantly, some of the news that came out last week regarding Justice could do far more damage.
Next, Forbes magazine put online an article on Justice’s business practices the morning of April 9. The article by Christopher Helman didn’t reveal much that was new. Justice and his multiple business entities owe hundreds of millions in payments to vendors, government penalties and fines, taxes, mine reclamation liabilities, and on and on.
What made this article truly damning for Justice, and the state as a whole, was the fact of it being in Forbes. It’s online now, but it’s going to be in the print version April 30. Forbes is a huge business magazine and that article is going to be on the desk of probably every CEO in the country at the end of the month. The state Development Office is going to have a fun time trying to recruit Fortune 500 companies.
If Justice thought last Tuesday morning was bad after the Forbes article came out, the afternoon got worse after it was revealed the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section issued a grand jury subpoena to the Department of Commerce for records going back to 2014 regarding the sponsorship of the Greenbrier Classic golf tournament.
We only know about this because once a federal subpoena is received by the state, it is considered a public document (Brad McElhinny of WV MetroNews originally broke the story, which I was able to confirm, as well as other reporters). The subpoena is largely just a request for publicly available records. In fact, I was amused to see Freedom of Information Act requests for state Ethics Commission contract exemptions when those records are easily found on the Ethics Commission website.
It’s no secret that the Department of Commerce paid for Greenbrier Classic sponsorships in the millions to wine and dine business leaders in the hopes they’d bring their business to West Virginia. That sponsorship ended in 2017 when Justice, the owner of the Greenbrier Resort and on the payroll for the charity that runs the Greenbrier Classic (now called A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier) put an end to the state sponsorship.
The real question is this: what is the Justice Department looking for? I can’t imagine this was the first subpoena, it’s simply the only one sent to a government agency. It is likely Justice’s companies have been subpoenaed too. Much like the federal investigations into former U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan and former Gov. Joe Manchin as he was beginning his run for U.S. Senate, we likely won’t know anything until the investigation is done.
One thing we do know: Justice’s charity that runs the Greenbrier Classic is seriously in the red. In 2017 it brought in slightly more than $4.9 million and had more than $22.9 million in liabilities. According to the Forbes article, the Justice companies maybe bring in $20 million annually in profit.
One can certainly point to Justice greasing the skids of government to get things he wants. I’ll never forget the day that Justice, before he was governor, marched into the Governor’s Reception Room in 2014 with a Louisiana jazz band after the West Virginia Legislature and former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin approved a bill giving Justice a $25 million tax credit.
That bill, the West Virginia Tourism Development Act, was passed on the final day of the session in 2014. It was used to help pay for an NFL training camp (the jazz band was because the New Orleans Saints was the first to commit to moving to this new training camp), a medical facility at the Greenbrier, and a ski resort project that never got off the ground.
I had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with Justice Saturday, sitting in the passenger seat of his personal SUV that he insists on driving himself. It’s apparent that he relates to President Donald Trump. Both are former Democrats-turned-Republican. Both are outspoken. Both are beleaguered by detractors. Both have been under federal investigations.
Justice won in 2016, even as a Democrat, because voters saw him as an Appalachian version of Trump. Going into 2020, how does he not still look like an Appalachian Trump?
Speaking of Trump, he is sending some of his campaign people to the state to help run Justice’s re-election effort for 2020 according to Politico.
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.